I swung by a favourite wine bar recently and had an opportunity to try something rare, and even though I just wrote about a similarly lesser known white grape from the south of France, I couldn’t resist. Obscure grapes are really a matter of perspective, in that if I lived in Pinet this would be considered absolutely common. But since I don’t, I give you Domaine de la Majone Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet 2010.
Before I get into that, you may have noticed a change on the website, in that each post starts with some data about the wine in question, and those terms click through to all the wines that share that origin or variety. While I still have a fair amount of work ahead of me, all the posts that relate to a single wine (approaching 100) now have those details. It’s handy as I will be making more templates to make use of those, but even just now as I was putting those details in I had to enter both the location and the grape into the database, so I know that I haven’t covered either before. And that means I should get to it.
So Languedoc. It, along with Roussillon, made up the compulsory question on the WSET Diploma Exam in January (I passed – not sure if I’ve mentioned that enough) and so I should be well equipped to say something meaningful about it. However, the question was about the strengths and weaknesses of the two collectively as a wine area, and I think I got points for showing thoughtfulness instead of actually knowing many facts. I’ll start with what I know, and then, as always, consult the pile of books I have here (as well as the OCW at jancisrobinson.com).
Languedoc-Roussillon is an area in the south of France from the Spanish border to the Rhône river, extending inland from the Mediterranean between roughly 30km at it’s most shallow and roughly 100km at its deepest. Roussillon is the area closest to the border and is culturally Catalan, but best kept on its own until I can talk about a wine specifically from there. Languedoc is the more northern and eastern section of the broader region, and is culturally an area where Occitan was spoken. If you add spaces and punctuation, Languedoc becomes Langue d’òc, or language of òc, hence the name of the region. The climate is Mediterranean, with short, rainy winters, long springs and autumns, and hot dry summers. Drought is a constant threat. In addition to the sea, the Mistral can have an impact, keeping the region from becoming unbearably hot. The soils vary across the rather large region, though limestone is a common theme. Otherwise, it’s rich soil in river valleys, sandy in the area around the Rhône, but more clay and gravel on the plains.
In terms of wine, Languedoc is a big place, both geographically and in terms of production. Along with Roussillon, the two make up roughly a quarter of total French area under vine, though that is down from a third in the 1990s. While the areas produce a vast quantity of wine, they represents only 10% of AC wines. Instead most wine produced is either in the lowest quality designation, Vin de Table, or increasingly in the intermediate category of Vin de Pays.
In parts of the New World, there are areas that are best known for bulk production of wine but likewise not generally known for high quality wines, such as California’s Central Valley, or Australia’s Murray Darling. It’s tempting to think that Languedoc must be the same, and at one point that might have been true. Carignan, little loved, is the main grape of the region. Traditional winemaking is still very common, with little availability of modern conveniences such as destemming machinery, and new oak is usually beyond the budgets afforded by the selling price of the wines produced. Fermentation is typically done in concrete, though stainless steel has made some inroads. Carbonic maceration is commonly used to moderate the harsh nature of Carignan, and much of the wine is sold in bulk to consumers without ever seeing the inside of a bottle.
However, while Languedoc does produce more than its share of mediocre bulk wines, it is also an engine of innovation in the Old World. In the absence of strict appellation rules, some winemakers have taken advantage of the freedom by experimenting with different varieties, blends, and winemaking techniques. Vine pull schemes sponsored by the European Union have cut back on the dominance of Carignan, opening up the region to Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay are also finding a home there, though not for AC wines. Wines are sold with the variety written on the label – something unusual in France outside of Alsace. Modern wines of Languedoc can be fresh, interesting, and able to compete with their New World counterparts on price and accessibility. The thrust of my essay answer on the exam was that as a region it was a small piece of the New World in an Old World country. So freedom, modernity, and some of the cachet of being French, but none of the recognition or prestige of the fine wine regions.
To narrow the focus somewhat, much of that does not apply to this wine or its region. This wine is from Coteaux du Languedoc AC, which immediately puts it a step up on the quality classification ladder from most wines of Languedoc, and in particular it is from the named Cru of Picpoul de Pinet.
Picpoul Blanc is the grape, and it is neither of the new crop of varieties being planted, but rather a re-emerging regional grape of the area that fell out of fashion when phylloxera destroyed much of the wine industry. Literally “lip stinger” in Occitan, it’s an oval shaped white grape found in loose bunches. It buds early but ripens late. Unfortunately, it has low yields and is susceptible to fungus, and as such was not a popular candidate for replanting after the blight of the 19th century. While it is not the next Sauvignon Blanc, it has come back from complete obscurity. It tolerates sand, which has been used to good effect in coastal vineyards, and modern winemaking has allowed its crisp character to be more widely appreciated. It, along with Picpoul Rouge, are permitted varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, though are only ever seen there in tiny amounts. It is at home in Languedoc, and Picpoul de Pinet may be made in both the namesake commune and a number of its immediate neighbours. There area also plantings in California and Texas, but I can’t find anyone growing it in Australia.
I can find very little information about this producer as I’m unable to locate their website, but I did drop a line to the importer and have one detail. They’re apparently part of a co-operative in Côtes de Thau with their own winery. The bottle shape is also required of the AOC, and while the photo doesn’t do it justice, it is somewhere between an Alsace and Burgundy shape, with an embossed detail most of the way up the bottle.
As to this wine itself, in the glass it’s clear and bright, with medium minus lemon green colour and slow thick legs. The nose is of medium plus intensity, with scents of green apple, honey, mineral, and pear. It’s youthful without really any development. On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium alcohol, medium plus intensity and notes of grapefruit, some pear, mineral, and a little paint thinner on the finish. It has a medium plus length.
This is a good quality wine. It’s fairly intense and has good complexity of tart and mineral flavours. The acidity is certainly living up to the variety’s name, and it makes me wish the weather was warmer and I was having something salty like fish and chip to eat by the seaside. I’d recommend this if you can find it, or really any Picpoul de Pinet, as they’re refreshing and certainly undervalued. I’m not positive, but this could be the least expensive wine I’ve covered, but certainly one of the best in terms of value.
Pin location is approximate.