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A Choice White for Summer: Picpoul de Pinet
By Jim Clarke
May 23, 2017
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With Memorial Day upon us, it’s natural to turn the corner toward summer wines-- More and more that seems to mean rosé, a category that’s growing rapidly, escaping its White Zin-derived reputation for sweetness.  But what startles me about rosé’s rise is the way it’s bypassed white wine.  Why move from winter reds to summer rosés, but not summer whites?

I think part of the answer comes from the beach.  Not literally, but think of what we think of as hot summer destinations -- the Mediterranean, especially.  It’s one of the great ironies of wine that these hot beach destinations, if they have vineyards nearby, are probably best suited to red grapes, and usually produce big, rich reds -- think Aglianico, Priorat, and the like, not Pinot Noir.  Whereas the classic “delicate” whites come from places where summer weather is pleasantly warm, but not necessarily all that hot.  Light, delicate German Rieslings sound perfect for summer in terms of drinking character, but maybe their Germanic origins doesn’t suggest the languid summer lifestyle we like to think we’re indulging in.  Rosés are hot regions’ way of making a wine that would actually be enjoyable in their own, local summer weather.

There are nonetheless white wines that break these rules.  Typically they’re made from indigenous varieties -- white grapes that not only tolerate the hot growing conditions, but retain their freshness when doing so.  Often they rely on local conditions that belie or at least temper the “hot climate” cliché of their origin, either because of elevation or a cooling maritime influence.

One such would be Picpoul de Pinet.  With about 1,300 hectares planted, it’s a tiny appellation in the grand scheme of things, nestled in among a number of the Languedoc’s predominantly red wine appellations but nonetheless responsible for more than 60% of the Languedoc’s white wine production.  The appellation’s vineyards lie southwest from Montepellier along the Mediterranean coast, across the Bassin de Thau lagoons from the picturesque resort town of Sète and its attendant oyster farms, which almost seem to exist solely to prove the “grows together, goes together” cliché -- oysters are an excellent pairing with Picpoul.

The Picpoul (or Piquepoul) grape is not exclusive to Picpoul de Pinet; it appears in blends up the French coastal appellations all the way to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  It’s great virtue us that even in these sunny growing conditions, Picpoul retains its acidity, which is vital for making a refreshing white in these conditions (and responsible for its name which means “lip-stinger”).  It typically has a floral and citrus character; when done right, it has backbone despite its butterfly-like lightness, but lesser examples can seem watery.  The latter have become pretty uncommon ever since the AOC received its official approval in 2013; a classic case, apparently, of an appellation working to protect an identity centered on quality – the region isn’t big enough for lesser producers to ride the coattails of better brands.

Picpoul de Pinet was the one of the unfortunate victims of the frosts that plagued French vineyards this spring; enjoy some now, both because the producers need the support and it may be harder to find when the time comes for the 2017 vintage to be released.

Recommended Producers:

Les Vignerons de Florensac:  One of four cooperatives that between themselves make up 80% or so of Picpoul production; definitely demonstrates that cooperative wine production needn’t be a lowest-common-denominator operation.

Ch. St.  Martin de la Garrigue:  While they make wines from vineyards all over the Languedoc, St.  Martin de la Garrigue is known for their Picpoul de Pinet in particular

Domaine Felines Jourdan:   A small, family-owned property dedicated solely to Picpoul.

Domaine Font Mars:  Despite the eye-catchingly modern labels, this is a classic property making serious wine.

Domaine Julie Benau:  Julie took over the family property in 1999, and has since raised the level of quality and bottled a variety of single vineyard Picpoul’s that demonstrate different aspects of the small region’s terroir.

Domaine Reine Juliette:  This property recently changed hands, and the new owners were hit hard by this spring’s frost.  The vineyards have a good track record and I hope to see the domaine bounce back; they’re experienced growers who should be able to make the most of what they have while they struggle with the supply issues the frosts have created.

Gaujal St.  Bon:  Another small, family-owned property run by a mother-daughter team.