There are 1,368 grape varietals in the world but most Americans drink wine made from just about 20 different types.
But now a small group of winemakers is hoping an old-but-new variety joins that elite group.
Picardan, an obscure white wine grape originating in the Rhône wine region in southeastern France, is experiencing an American renaissance of sorts after almost going extinct. Even though it is one of the 13 certified grapes permitted for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, there was just a little more than an acre of picardan planted around the world until recently. Now it is thriving in California, Washington and Texas.
“We are extremely excited about it,” said Steve Newsom of Caprock Winery in Lubbock, Texas. “As we grow the industry we look for things that fit our climate in the Texas high plains. We are looking for a grape that symbolizes us.”
The winemakers who are growing picardan are not only excited by its taste, but its novelty. In a world dominated by cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, zinfandel, pinot noir and other major grapes, they hope a wine made from picardan grapes will stand out from the crowd.
“The rarity attracted us and certainly the opportunity to have a wine that no one else has attracted us,” said Alex Urbano, a co-owner of Jack Simon Vineyards in San Diego County, which has an acre-and-a-half of Picardan planted. Jack Simon is planning to distribute its entire production, 430 cases, to its wine club members.
“We wanted to plant some white wine varietals that we knew we couldn’t get elsewhere in the state of Washington,” said Lacey Lybecker, who co-owns Cairdeas Winery in the Chelan Valley in the north-central part of the state with her husband, Charlie.
The wine is made in such small quantities in France that it used as a blending grape. But picardan is making its way into single varietal bottles in the U.S.
Jason Haas, whose family’s Tablas Creek Vineyard in the Paso Robles area of California was the first to import the grape, said picardan makes a delicious wine with high acid that he described as lush, juicy, and fun. The Tablas Creek winemaker liked it so much that the winery has added it to its signature blend, Esprit de Tablas Blanc.
“By itself, it is surprisingly delicious,” said Urbano.
The story of how picardan grapes came to the United States is a saga in itself. The grapes spent nine years in quarantine before they could be released on the market.
Tablas Creek first imported picardan cuttings in 2003, part of the winery’s decades-long quest to bring all 13 of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties to the U.S. Robert Haas and the Perrin family, which also owns Château de Beaucastel in the southern Rhône region of France, founded Tablas Creek in 1987 with the idea of making the first Rhône-style wine in the country. They brought in eight of the 13 varietals in the 1989. Fourteen years later, in 2003, Robert Haas decided to import the other five grape varietals, which included picardan grapes culled from Château de Beaucastel’s fields.
“We brought them in not because we knew much about any of them,” admitted Jason Haas, the general manager. (Robert died in March at the age of 90.) “We brought them in because we felt it was important in our role as one of the standard bearers of the movement that 1,000 wineries are now a part of, to continue to explore what these grapes might bring to California.”
Tablas Creek planted about half-an-acre of picardan vines in 2013 and got its first crop in 2016. (The single varietal it produced was the first ever made in the U.S.) The winery also propagated the grapes and sold cuttings to both Jack Simon Winery and Cairdeas Winery. Tablas Creek then bowed out of the vine selling and bud grafting business and turned it over to Novavine in Sonoma County.
The grape that was on its way to extinction is now planted on at least seven acres in three states. Newsom, who planted two acres in 2017 and two acres this year, appears to have the largest amount planted in the world, a fact he discovered when contacted by this reporter.
“I certainly did not know that,” he said. “I am very excited about that.”
According to Jason Wilson, who explored the world of rare grapes in his book, Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine, there is a tradition of obscure Old-World grapes coming into their own in the New World and capturing a large market share.
“What’s happening with picardan is not that unique,” said Wilson. “It’s happening all over the world. What often happens is maybe a variety that in Europe is a blending grape or a secondary or tertiary grape to the famous wines, it goes to some other country and then maybe one of the minor grapes becomes a major grape.”
Wilson points out that it certainly happened with malbec, which is a minor grape in Bordeaux but a major grape in Argentina. In the 19th century, Californians took a little-known grape from Switzerland called durif and renamed it petite syrah. It thrived in the West Coast climate and is now a major grape. Syrah was then planted in Australia where it was renamed shiraz and became that country’s iconic wine.
Wilson is a believer in creating a richer biodiversity and supports the idea of rescuing little known grapes from extinction—as long as it is not done just to generate publicity.
If it’s “let’s get a wildly obscure grape variety and plant it, just like let’s get an amphora, let’s age white wine on leaves, let’s make orange wine, I’m afraid the obscure variety is going to become another marketing play.”
In addition to its good flavor, picardan’s sturdiness in extreme heat has also energized winemakers who are looking for varietals that can survive increasing temperatures caused by global warming. Newsom said his winery near Lubbock has had 27 days of over 100-degree heat this summer, yet the picardan grapes still appear to be thriving.
The San Diego area is also experiencing successive heat waves this summer. One day the temperature even hit 115 degrees. The winery’s acre-large vineyard of picardan has weathered the extreme well.
“During the heatwave a lot of varietals, like cabernet, were severely damaged,” Urbano said. “It was just too hot for them. [Picardan] is probably the most vigorous grape we have in the vineyard. It’s been quite a surprise to us.”
Still, no one yet knows how popular picardan will prove to be. The Lybeckers have not yet made a single barrel from their grapes. Neither has Newsom. But the Texas grower said he is hopeful that picardan becomes the grape that “symbolizes” the white wine coming from the high plains of Texas—an industry that is still learning its way. “With the first year behind us, we’re excited about it,” he said.