Picpoul means “lip stinger” in French, which is a nod to this white grape’s ability to produce very high-acid wines. And traditionally, that’s what people have expected from it—a refreshing vin de soif (“thirst quencher”) to be served alongside plates of oysters on a hot day.
But Picpoul can sing more than one simple note. In France and the U.S.—which now has approximately 75 acres planted to the grape between California, Washington, and Texas—producers are exploring Picpoul’s potential for complexity, and discovering a new depth of character.
Though far from mainstream, Picpoul has become increasingly prized by American buyers over the last decade. Tonya Pitts, the wine director at One Market in San Francisco and principal at Tonya Pitts Consulting, says the grape has everything she is looking for in a wine. “Picpoul can complement more options and different foods than you would expect, but it’s also completely crushable on its own,” she says. “It’s zippy and it’s super crisp; it almost dances on your tongue.” She recommends it as a gateway wine for those who like the aromatics of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay but don’t want the floral, full-bodied profile of a Viognier.
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“This style of bright, mineral wine with fresh acidity and salinity is something that wasn’t popular 20 years ago, but now it’s something that most people are looking for,” says Yannick Benjamin, owner and sommelier at the recently-opened Contento in New York City. “There’s no doubt in my mind that most wine lovers, if you pour them a glass, will fall in love with it.”
French Producers Push Grape Maturity
A grape called “picapoll” appeared in the journals of Latin winemakers working in the Languedoc as early as the 14th century. In 1618, Piquepoul was named one of the region’s six most important varieties by the famed botanist Pierre Maniol.
Today, in the Picpoul de Pinet AOC located near the middle of the Languedoc, there are 24 producers crafting single-variety Picpoul from 1,400 hectares of vines. Though small, it’s the largest white wine appellation in the Languedoc.
Celeste Renault, the coordinator of the Syndicat de l’AOP Picpoul de Pinet, believes that traditional Picpoul will always have its place in the market as a fresh, acid-driven wine, but she’s excited about the new styles producers are exploring. Eight producers within the AOC are partnering on a yet-to-be-released wine they’re calling Patience, which highlights Picpoul’s potential to create earthier, more complex wines that age well.
This shift in styles is not lost on producers in the southern Rhône, where Picpoul has traditionally been picked early and blended with grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne, and Picardan to add acidity—in white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example.
“We really appreciate the freshness of Picpoul,” says Richard Maby, the winemaker of Domaine Maby, which works with fruit from Tavel, Lirac, and the southern Rhône. “In our region, we have a lot of sun and heat. Our wines can be very aromatic, but sometimes they can lack freshness.”
Yet when harvested later, Picpoul can achieve a very different, more complex taste profile, Maby explains—a direction more and more French producers are moving in. “If you wait two weeks more to get the very good maturity, you also get these very interesting aromas,” he says. “You keep freshness but you also get more interesting aromas of orange and citrus.”
Picpoul’s American Potential
As Picpoul has migrated to the U.S., many producers have been opting for longer hang times. “For us in California, I feel like we don’t have to make that choice between freshness and complexity, because the combination of the colder nights here and the highly calcareous soil means that we can retain really great acids even as we leave it on the vine longer,” says Jason Haas, the general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, which has a partnership with the well-known Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate Château de Beaucastel. “We’re typically picking Picpoul at a pH of 3.2 or 3.25, which is very low, but late in the growing season, like mid-October, so we get lots of texture and tropicality.”
In 2000, Tablas Creek became the first winery to plant the grape in the U.S. and has since cultivated most of the Picpoul vines currently growing around the country. The original intention was to use it in blends, but “it’s turned out to be more compelling on its own than we ever thought it would be,” says Haas. The brand has since added a popular single-variety Picpoul.
“Mine has a lot of pineapple, lemon, and maybe some white melon,” says Lisa Callan of Callan Cellars in Woodinville, Washington, who has developed a cult following for Picpoul made with grapes from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley. These flavors, along with pronounced floral and mineral notes, are common in American vineyards.
“We have always picked a little later to get more fruit and aromatics,” says Bob Young, M.D., the owner of Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas. “Because the acidity holds up so well compared to most white varieties, this is not a problem in our Texas vineyards. We barrel-ferment and barrel-age Picpoul, so this adds another layer of body, complexity, and mouthfeel. We have Picpouls from our estate vineyard that are still tasting good after 10 years in our wine library.” Of the three whites he grows—Roussanne, Vermentino, and Picpoul—the last is the most popular.
Sue Tipton, the owner and winemaker at Acquiesce Winery and Vineyards in Lodi, says she walks a fine line between crisp acidity and complex flavors with her Picpoul grapes, which she uses to make blended and varietal wine. “Of all the white grapes I grow, Picpoul is picked at the lowest brix level to keep its crisp acidity. Over the 12 years I’ve come to know this grape in my vineyard, I have found there is a delicate balance between high acid and grape flavor, and I lean toward a wine that tastes great both with food and on its own.” She reports that vintages from five to seven years ago are drinking particularly well right now.
A Blank Canvas
Callan sees the new enthusiasm for Picpoul driven by the grape’s malleability—winemakers can create an impressive range of expressions. “It makes me think of two other varieties: Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, although Picpoul is Picpoul whether it hits oak or not,” she says.
Dr. Young agrees: “Picpoul Blanc is one of the most versatile grape varieties. Because of its structure, it is frequently described as the white wine for red wine drinkers. Its high acidity lends itself not only to bright, tank-fermented wines, but it can also handle the full-bodied creaminess of barrel fermentation.” (While Young makes most of his Picpoul in a more traditional French way—fermented in oak and aged in mostly neutral French oak, with batonnage twice a day—he also ages a small amount in used bourbon barrels for mint juleps at the winery’s annual Kentucky Derby party.)
“There are Picpoul cans from California, skin-contact Picpoul, and barrique-aged Picpoul in addition to the classic expression,” says Doreen Winkler, the owner of the Orange Glou wine club and store in New York. She recommends Domaine Julie Benau’s Picpoul, the Two Shepherds Picpoul Blanc, and Forlorn Hope Wines’ Trobairises Rorick Heritage Vineyard Picpoul.
Converting Customers to Picpoul
Despite growing awareness, Picpoul remains a hand-sell in most places. Kim McPherson, of McPherson Cellars in the High Plains of Texas, finds that on the East Coast “Picpoul seems to be a variety that people know about,” while elsewhere, sales are slower. He crafts a low-alcohol Picpoul that is appreciated by tasting room guests.
Ervin Machado, the beverage director for Big Time Restaurant Group in West Palm Beach, Florida, will often pitch it to guests who say they like Pinot Grigio or Sancerre. “When I first tasted Picpoul, it was really interesting to me that it was a white grape that had incredible acidity but it wasn’t bitter,” he says. “That’s something that’s hard to find in really phenolic grapes. Picpoul is like Pinot Grigio in that it’s fresh, clean, and focused, but the bitter phenolics are absent.”
Benjamin recommends it to customers who typically drink Chablis, unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Italy’s fuller-bodied whites. When customers “want something that’s clean and crisp and satisfying, Picpoul is a good choice,” he says.
Another benefit of Picpoul is its affordability. “Classic Picpoul is a bargain, retailing around $18,” says Winkler. Wines made from biodynamic farms, old vines, or with skin contact may be in the $25 to $50 range. “Whether classic or a different style, the price is great for the quality of wine.”
Pitts does well selling Picpoul by the glass, especially ones with a little bit of age. “The best thing is to pour it for people,” she said. “Pour a splash for them and talk about it. Get them out of their comfort zone and what they’d normally choose.”
The grape’s day has come, she believes: “Picpoul is not a grape that is for a supporting role only. It can shine on its own and be a leader.”
Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.