One of the highlights of the search for my book, The Wines of the South of France, was dinner at the restaurant La Côte Bleue outside Bouzigues on the Bassin de Thau. Bouzigues is known for its oysters and from the restaurant dining room you look out over a broad expanse of oyster beds, eating molluscs that were in the water a few hours earlier. And the wine was Picpoul de Pinet. It was a perfect combination, the refreshing acidity of the wine simply complementing an oyster like a squeeze of lemon. And all seemed right with the world.
Picpoul de Pinet is a vivid illustration of just how dramatically white wine from the south of France has improved over recent years. Not so long ago all the white wine produced around the Bassin de Thau was destined for the vermouth, Noilly Prat, which is made in nearby Marseillan. As herbs and spices feature largely in the production process, the flavour of the base wine was a very secondary consideration, and an oxidised golden colour was acceptable, and even desirable. But production of Noilly Prat has dropped and another outlet was necessary for the wine; an improvement in quality was the only way forward.
Quite simply, the grape variety is Picpoul, or Piquepoul, which is grown around the village of Pinet, and other nearby villages, Florensac, Pomerols. Castelnau de Guers, Mèze and Montagnac. The vineyards form a surprising oasis of white wine in a sea of red wine. The terroir, or soil, explains the reason for this unexpected oasis of white wine. Quite simply the soil is too generous for red wine. It is mainly limestone, which suits white wine, with some clay, sand and appropriately a scattering of fossilised oyster shells. The climate is very much influenced by the sea, with a cooling effect during the nights of the hot summer months, and the vines benefit from maritime breezes.
Comparisons can be odious but I think it is fair to suggest that Picpoul de Pinet is the southern French equivalent of Muscadet. Neither packs a punch of flavour, but they provide brilliant accompaniments to the local seafood, and when finely crafted, have deliciously subtle flavours. The cooperative at Pinet, with its brand name L’Ormarine, and striking logo conveying the blue sea, green vines and yellow sun, are amongst the pacesetters of the appellation. They dominate the production, accounting for 45 per cent, with the nearby cooperative of Pomerols responsible for 30 per cent. There are two other smaller cooperatives – that of Florensac has a good restaurant, but unfortunately the quality of the wine does the cooking a disservice – and 26 independent wine growers account for fifteen per cent of the 1050 hectares of Picpoul de Pinet.
I met the director Cyril Payon on the penultimate day of the harvest. He looked tired, as he hadn’t had much sleep over the past few weeks for they pick at night by mechanical harvester, so the cellars had been open from midnight every night since the middle of August. But things had gone well; the vintage was looking good, with healthy ripe grapes, even though quantity is down a little. We were shown an efficient stream-lined cellar, with modern equipment, allowing for a gentle pressing. Chilling the juice and wine is an essential part of the process and cellar hygiene is a paramount consideration.
Like Muscadet, Picpoul is a grape variety is that can be short on flavour. What was fascinating to see at L’Ormarine was the range of tastes they are able to extract from a subtle grape variety. We began with Préambule, bottled with a screwcap, which is still a pretty revolutionary step for the south of France. This was light and delicate with some fresh acidity, but not much flavour. Move onto Carte Noire, their main brand, with an annual production of 600,000 bottles and you have a wine that is riper, more rounded, with more depth of flavour; there are citrus notes and a hint of iodine from the sea. Next up the scale comes Duc de Morny. The vinification is identical, but they have selected grapes from older vines and better vineyards, and it shows in the wine, with more weight and a sappy freshness. The Duc de Morny was Napoleon III’s Minster of the Interior – and apparently Picpoul was one of his favourite wines.
Next came a cuvée prestige, with a slight different winemaking technique, using juice from the filtered lees of the juice, making for a richer wine with more depth, but again with fresh salty acidity. And they have also make a sparkling Picpoul – which I could happily leave. It’s a bit earthy for my taste.
More exciting was a late harvest wine, called Vendange de Novembre, made from grapes which have been left to dry on the vines. And finally there was an expression of a typical Languedoc drink, Carthagène. You take the juice from one year’s production, and stop the fermentation by the addition, in this case, of eau de vie de Piquepoul, so that you have a fresh grapey drink, with hints of aniseed, and a lightly alcoholic kick on the finish. So instead of one dry white wine, I was impressed by the astonishing versatility of a grape variety that I could, so mistakenly, have dismissed as neutral.