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Picpoul Blanc

Acquiesce vineyards sponsorship adOther regional spellings of this grape variety include "piquepoul" and "picapoll"{1}. Over three dozen provincial synonyms are used, most are specific to one of the colors the berries ripen to: white (blanc), grey (gris), or black (noir).

Naturally higher in acids than other wine grape types, it seems plausible that the picpoul group was named for its taste sensation. The French “piqûre” translates into "to prick" or "to sting".{2} It is also possible the name may have derived from the geography near where the grape was first distinguished; "pic" is French for "peak".

Probably native to the area where the Pyranees Mountains reach the Mediterranean Sea and near where the southern border of France's Roussillon-Languedoc region meets the northern border of Spain's Catalonia, picpoul is considered one of the oldest grapes of this wine-producing region.

The blanc and gris variants are more recent evolutions of the dark-skinned noir, although plantings internationally of the light-skinned variant dwarf the other two. Vineyard area in France for picpoul noir shrunk by 50% over the last half of the 20th Century to a total of less than 500 acres; the gris variant meanwhile has become nearly extinct with only 121 distinct acres reported in 1968; all reports since then have incorporated gris and blanc together.

Today the best known picpoul wine is Picpoul de Pinet, a sub-appellation of the Languedoc where over 80% of France's total 3,600 acres of picpoul blanc grapes are cultivated to fashion this typically pale green, light-flavored, crisp wine. So dominant/prominent is this area in this grape's utility that Picpoul de Pinet has become an accepted synonym for the variety itself. Impending recognition of this geographical indication as an AOC{3}, with the qualifying limits on production demands on quality, had the approaching effect over several years of reducing fruit production per acre while increasing quality and ultimately has led to increased plantings.

Early records from the Rhône Valley indicate that Picpoul was blended with Clairette Blanche (a white variety deficient in acid) to form a sweet wine called Picardan, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, that Dutch wine traders exported throughout Northern Europe. Although acreage there is declining, picpoul blanc is one of six white varieties permitted in the production of Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc. Picpoul is often a minor component in the production of Tavel (rosé).{4} As wines labeled by the principal variety used have gained in popularity, especially in the United States, many French producers are promoting varietal designations over regional ones on their labels.

Outside Southern France, plantings of picpoul blanc are miniscule. Over the past three decades, however, a few producers have taken to picpoul blanc and it seems that interest may be spreading geographically among both grower and consumer groups.

Picpoul Blanc grape clusterRobert Haas, a founding partner of Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, imported vine cuttings from several varieties, picpoul blanc among them, grown at Château Beaucastel, the Rhône estate of the Perrin Family (Haas' French partners), during the 1990s. Some of these varieties were not previously cultivated in the Western Hemisphere. Following the extended and rigorous routine of disease-free certification, sections of the Tablas Creek vineyard were planted, starting in 2000.{5}

Picpoul blanc vines first came to the United States in the 1980s through the quarantine program at the USDA Research Center on the Cornell University campus in Geneva, New York. Probably due to meager demand and the high cost and length of time involved for certification, vines from this source were not approved until 2012.

Bottlings of Picpoul Blanc are now available from California AVAs including Lodi, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, and Sonoma Valley; Washington AVAs Rattlesnake Hills, Walla Walla, and Yakima; Texas AVAs Hill Country and High Plains; and the Willcox AVA in Arizona.

An Australian oyster merchant, in 2013, discovered that wine made from picpoul blanc was the perfect accompaniment to his product and so, imported and planted some vines in New South Wales and has contracted with a local winery to produce the wine.

Picpoul vines prefer a dry climate and do fine in less-fertile soils, including calcareous, clay, and sand. They push bud break earlier than most varieties, but ripen late, so a long growing season is ideal. Particularly susceptible to botrytis bunch rot (aka "grey rot"), but also powdery mildew and other fungal diseases, the berries grow in loose, fairly large clusters, are medium-sized, oval shaped and detach from the stems easily. While picpoul blanc vines produce good yields, the picpoul noir variant tends to do so only in alternating vintages. Over cropping leads to low flavor and low acid. Color extraction is another difficulty in picpoul noir.

After the phylloxera infestation at the end of the 19th century, picpoul was not widely replanted in Europe, but cultivation has increased somewhat over recent decades.

*Typical Picpoul Blanc Smell and Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual sensory ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas:

Processing Bouquets:

Fruit: lemon, pineapple, tropical, citrus, pear

Oak: (atypical)

Floral: acacia

 

Spice: uncommon

Lees-Ageing: often increases intensity and can take off the acidic edge
Flavors / Mouth Feel / Texture:

light to lush / crisp, tangy / lingering aftertaste

The historical use of this variety has been as a blend component to boost overall acidity. Unblended bottlings have natural zest and lightly-lemony, citrussy sensory properties that are not-too-intrusive or expressive, wines that compliment food without dominating it. New World examples of Picpoul Blanc seem to have more tropical tones and a lusher mouthfeel. Flavors of shellfish, cheeses, olives and other salty foods seem more prominent and distinctive when paired with Picpoul Blanc.

by Jim LaMar


NOTES
1. By DNA identification, the Spanish picapoll negro is truly of the same family. The grape known to the Spanish as picapoll blanco is not, however; this white grape may be the same or at least is very closely related to the grape the French know as clairette. RETURN

2. Although a majority of wine texts says "picpoul" means "lip stinger", this is quite likely an anecdotal interpretation and most certainly NOT a literal translation, as often claimed. The French word "pique" translates to "prick" (the closest translation of "sting" is "piqûre", literally "to puncture") and "pic" translates to "peak". The French word for "lips" is "lèvres"; but "poul" has no translation. However, "poule" is French for "hen" and "poulet" is French for "chicken". It is decidedly doubtful that this grape was named either "hen prick" or "chicken peak" but it is quite obvious that etymology is an interpretive rather than precise field of study... RETURN

3. Official as of June, 2018. RETURN

4. The best-known Tavel wine is Rosé. French law does not allow rosé to be a blend of red and white wines (except in Champagne, curiously). However, French regulations do allow co-fermentation, the mixing of red and white grapes as they commence to become wine. RETURN

5. Tablas Creek also assembled multiple clones of the black/red varieties counoise, grenache noir, mourvédre, and syrah, as well as white/green types marsanne, picpoul blanc, roussanne, and viognier and fostered each through the lengthy quarantine process to become certified virus-free. They even successfully petitioned the US Government to recognize the varieties that otherwise had no legally-approved provision for naming and labeling on American wine. This overall effort of time and resources contributed greatly to the diversity of California's wine grape growing industry. RETURN


RESOURCES
1. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours (pg 828-9) London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

2. Picpoul Blanc at Tablas Creek Vineyard (accessed 2018-4-13)

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (pg 524-5) London: Oxford University Press, 2006

4. Foundation Plant Services Grapes University of California Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (accessed 2018-4-13)

5. Catalogue of Selected Wine Grape Varieties and Clones Cultivated in France, (pg 128-30) Paris: French Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; contribuing editors Robert Boidron, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, Jean-Pierre Doazan, Phillipe LeClair, Michel LeGuay, Bernard Walter; 1997.

6. Paul Strang, Languedoc Roussillon the Wines and Winemakers London: Mitchell Beazley, 2002


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Page created April 3, 2018; last updated May 9, 2018
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