Wine of the moment? ‘Le Picpoul’

Los Angeles Times/July 2007

MONTPELLIER, France — The four women at a nearby table at lunch in the Medieval quarter here looked as if they had tottered in straight out of a Gallic translation of “Sex and the City”: made up, dressed up and hoping for something more than salads. Any silly resemblance ended with their drinks, though, because the waitress was delivering not a tray of cosmos but a bottle of what she cheerily announced as “Le Picpoul.”

Rosé might seem a more natural wine to order on a blistering Bastille Day, and not just for devotees of pink. But the foursome’s choice is truly the bright white in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, where the rolling countryside is carpeted in lush vineyards reaching almost to the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.

Citrusy and bright, Picpoul de Pinet is lively enough to be an aperitif, complex enough to drink with cheese or seafood and — no small consideration — affordable enough to indulge in a second bottle while waiting for a perfect partner for more than food.

Picpoul has been produced in this area for centuries, primarily around the sleepy little village of Pinet, but its romance had not spread even as Languedoc reds such as Fitou and Saint-Chinian came into vogue. Now, as word gets out about the unique allure of this lively wine, this is shaping up as the summer of Picpoul, and not just for women who wear stilettos to lunch.

Word is that it is a hot wine in England right now, and it has certainly become easier to find in New York City. It is turning up on more and more wine lists in restaurants, sometimes as a special pour by the glass; just about any wine shop with global reach carries at least one Picpoul, enthusiastically promoted as “a great summer wine” if not “five flavors in one glass.”

One sip and it is easy to understand why. Picpoul is not a complex grape, but winemakers inevitably bring out sprightly flavor with nuances meant more to be enjoyed than analyzed. Even at its most basic it is crisp and bracing and full of fruit. Like rosé, the traditional summer indulgence, this crisp white wine is as much at home on a picnic table as it is at a dinner party with easy food and a relaxed mood.

In a week in France, in Provence and Languedoc, I drank four Picpouls to every one rosé and have to agree with that assessment. They are nothing like an oaky Chardonnay or insipid Pinot Grigio, the two extremes of the white-wine world. The closest comparison might be to a really good Muscadet, the tart white from the Loire Valley.

Vintners say they strive for a balance of bright acidity and full fruitiness in a wine meant to be drunk young. Some age Picpoul in oak, which creates a rounder flavor, and others harvest the grapes late to produce a very fruity but still citrusy dessert wine. Most producers, though, simply take the direct route, allowing the juice of the tiny, pale green grapes to ferment naturally into a light but vibrant wine. If you swirl a glassful vigorously so that it opens up, you can almost smell the sea and taste hints of lemon.

Easily the best I found in southern France, where it is a subappellation of Coteaux du Languedoc, was the same Picpoul poured at Provence in New York and the one most widely available in the United States. Made by the mother-daughter team of Simonne and Anne-Virginie Arnaud-Gaujal, it is sold under two labels, Château de Pinet and Domaine Gaujal de Saint Bon.

Their winery was split off from one in the family for 250 years; a cousin, Ludovic Gaujal, produces Picpoul under his name in a slightly different style, with even more bright acid, at his share of the estate in Pinet. (He is even prouder of his late harvest Picpoul, which is a particularly intense dessert wine.)

Simonne Arnaud-Gaujal took over the winery when her father died 30 years ago, and her daughter joined her after first earning a degree in pharmacology and training as an oenologist. Anne-Virginie Arnaud-Gaujal said she blends the wine, then her mother tastes it blind, after which “an outside company” weighs in.

Finally her father and brother “taste in the role of the consumer.” Because she and her mother get along well, she said, they can produce a consistent wine with character even though “Picpoul is not like Sauvignon, which has a lot of aroma on its own; it’s very delicate.”

Because Picpoul’s aromas are a little reticent, they advise opening it two hours before pouring, serving it at 46 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and swirling it at least 30 seconds in a glass to release the aroma and flavor.

Their wines are aged nine months before release — “like pregnancy,” she said, “because it’s woman wine.” The 2006 was released in March and April in the United States, however, because the wine is shipped by sea, which ages it.

Languedoc, always the most prolific wine region of France because of its warm climate and rich soil, has been struggling lately, with winemakers actually threatening violence unless prices for their output are raised. (Exactly 100 years ago this summer there were riots — and deaths — in the streets when the wine market collapsed.)

But Anne-Virginie Arnaud-Gaujal said Picpoul has been doing relatively well lately because the association that controls producers has been keeping prices stable so that winemakers do not have to take whatever they are offered. Even so, many winemakers, including Ludovic Gaujal, turn over at least half their harvest to be made into bulk wine.

At L’Ormarine, the huge Picpoul cooperative in Pinet, a liter of white piped into a jug or box sells for 1.30 euros. The least expensive bottle made there, Carte Noir Picpoul de Pinet, is 3.65 euros, and it won an award at a recent competition in Paris.

Picpouls exported to the United States are also surprisingly reasonable — Guajal de Saint Bon can be found for as little as $8 in some shops. Even in restaurants in Languedoc and in Provence, where they are becoming common, Picpouls are usually no more than 14 euros.

They do have rich mystery, though. No one is sure where the name comes from, but both Ludovic Gaujal and Anne-Virginie Arnaud-Gaujal, however, say it can probably be traced to the fact that chickens wandering the vineyards were able to eat the tiny grapes so easily — pique also means “peck” and poule means “chicken.”

But theory was not on the table at a last lunch in Languedoc, at the Guajal house in the bustling small city of Narbonne, where the winemakers were determined to showcase what perfect partners their wines are for food. The five-course, four-hour affair included brandade and sea snails and no fewer than eight kinds of goat cheese (and a Gruyère).

But the pièce de résistance was the main course: In the fireplace of the very formal dining room, next to the beautifully set table under a crystal chandelier, Simonne Arnaud-Gaujal grilled salmon steaks over Picpoul grapevines.

The smoky-rich flavor of the fish was an especially potent match for the wine; its harmony with grilled food makes it even more suited to summer drinking. The citrusy-flowery aspect goes with any seafood, including mussels and steamed crab. It’s also good with mushrooms and, surprisingly, excellent with cheese, especially fresh chevres. I have even had it with Trader Joe’s cheese puffs, after bringing a bottle to a friend’s terrace to watch the sun set (where another friend saw the bottle and exclaimed: “That’s my house wine this summer!”)

As an aperitif, or a wine served without any food, Picpoul more than holds its own. You could even taste it in a martini if you chose Noilly Prat as the vermouth: Picpoul aged in oak has traditionally been a key component of that brand, which is made on the Mediterranean in the picturesque town of Marseillan, only a few miles from Pinet.