Piquepoul: A Stinger or a Spider, a Beak or a Peak

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As many of you know, lately I’ve been taking a very, very deep dive into the grape varieties of the Rhône. More specifically, I’ve been diving for the grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in preparation for a mini-conference presentation. If it is part of the Châteauneuf 13 (or is it 18), I’ve studied it.*

One of the grapes I’ve been studying is Piquepoul. This is an interesting grape! For starters, while its most famous (and widely planted) incarnation is the white variety (blanc), there is also a PIquepoul Gris and a Piquepoul Noir. There are also a quite a few ways to spell the grape, all of them considered correct in certain places—such as Picpoul, Picpoule, Piquepout, and Piquepoule.

The leader if the Piquepoul pack is definitely the white version—Piquepoul Blanc. This grape has 4,000 documented acres (1,620 ha) in France and additional acreage in California. Most people would recognize this grape from the 100%-Piquepoul wine produced in the Languedoc’s Piquepoul de Pinet AOC. This is a popular wine for summer sipping, especially appreciated for its wide distribution and reasonable price point (ranging from around $10 to $15 a bottle). These light-bodied, high-acid wines are crisp, clean, and refreshing. Typical aromas and flavors of Piquepoul de Pinet include lemon, grapefruit, lime, peach, apricot, white flowers, yellow plum, and a hint of crunchiness or minerality.

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Piquepoul Noir is planted to about 200 acres (81 ha) in France, with about 7 acres in Spain. On its own, it tends to produce pale, acidic wines with oddly high levels of alcohol—in other words, it is not great on its own. However, it is very well suited to red blends and (in some cases) rosé. It’s an allowed variety (mostly in small amounts) in the Tavel, Vinsobres, Minervois, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras, and is allowed in the reds and rosés of the Luberon AOC—but only if planted before 1988.

The pink-skinned version, Picquepoul Gris, does not have any documented acreage in France (or elsewhere), and would be considered extinct save for a few cuttings and samples lurking in nurseries and university vineyards. Of course, being a color mutation, it might just decide to rise up one day in the middle of a vineyard somewhere. And it lives on in spirit, as Piquepoul Gris is still listed as an allowed variety in a few AOCs. Well, I could only find two AOCs that allowed Piquepoul Gris in their wines: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel, but surely there are plenty of vin de pays that have not yet kicked Piquepoul Gris out of the patch.

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As for the name Piquepoul, it has long been rumored to be based on the French word piquer, meaning “to sting,” and many people say that it is based on the Occitan term for “lip stinger.” Both versions of this “stinging” allusion relate back to the piquant acidity of the grape (and subsequent wine). However, it is now thought that while the term Piquepoul has a different background, the word piquer (to sting) is indeed the etymological root to a similar but separate grape variety (also grown throughout Southwest France) known as Picardan. Picardan, however, is also known as Araigan, and the name Araigan is thought to be based on the French word araigneé, meaning “spider’s web” and referring to the spider web-like hairs that grown on the underside of the leaves.

As for the meaning behind the grape known as Piquepoul, we need to consult a French botanist named Guy Lavignac and his book “Les Cépages du Sud Ouest—2000 Ans d’Histoire” (“The Grape Varieties of the Southwest – 2,000 Years of History [however, as far as I can tell, the book has not been translated in English]) Mr. Lavignac, a well-respected ampelographer, makes the claim the name Piquepoul is derived from the Oc dialect word for “peak” as in “mountain peak” or “place with a peak.” Alternatively, he believes it might refer to a “beak” as in a bird’s beak.

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There you have it: blanc, gris, and noir—all named after a stinger or a spider. Or was that a peak or a beak. I’ll take two glasses of Piquepoul de Pinet and think it over.

*There are thirteen grapes if you count varieties; and 18 if you add in the color mutations of Grenache, Piquepoul, and Clairette

References/for further information:

  • Lavignac, Guy. Les Cépages du Sud Ouest—2000 Ans d’Histoire. Paris, 2001: Roergue/INRA
  • Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz: Wine Grapes. New York, 2012: Harper Collins Publishers
  • Robinson, Jancis and Julia Harding: The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th Edition. Oxford, 2015: The Oxford University Press
  • http://www.picpoul-de-pinet.com/en

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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