The world's most oyster-friendly wine
Author: Max Allen
Photography: Max Allen
Steve Feletti's Moonlight Flat oysters, grown in the Clyde River
estuary at Batemans Bay in southern New South Wales, are found in
many of Australia's best restaurants, from Cutler & Co in Melbourne to The Boathouse on Blackwater Bay in Sydney.
He's as passionate about oysters as any man.
But Feletti's love of oysters has been eclipsed lately by his excitement over picpoul, the southern-French white grape said to produce the world's most oyster-friendly white wine. You see, the farmer has just released a few hundred half-bottles, his first vintage, of a wine made from his very own picpoul vines, imported from France a few years ago and now growing near Cowra in the central west of New South Wales.
"I first encountered picpoul in France in 2008," he says. "One of the 'onerous' tasks of being an oyster farmer is having to go regularly to the Languedoc, on the southern coast, the headquarters of the French oyster industry. I was in a seaside grill, looking out at the oyster trellises, when I tried this amazing dry white wine and bang! It was just a knockout experience. When I got home I did a bit of research, discovered that picpoul vines weren't available in Australia and crazily thought, well, I can do something about that."
So, the next time he found himself in the Languedoc, Feletti visited the chairman of the picpoul growers' association, showed him pictures of his oyster lease back in Australia and explained what he wanted to do.
"The old bloke understood immediately," says Feletti. "We're standing in his vineyard, middle of winter, and he told his boys to take some cuttings right there. I was elated; I helicoptered off the ground for a few seconds."
After three years in quarantine, then in a nursery for propagation, then being grafted onto existing verdelho vines, those first few picpoul cuttings finally bore their first proper crop - just a few hundred kilos - earlier this year, and were made into a crisp, dry white wine at Windowrie. Feletti, needless to say, can barely contain his joy, and it's not hard to see why. I tried a sample just before it was bottled in late July, with a freshly shucked Moonlight Flat oyster, and it was an astonishing match - as well as having delicate lemony acidity, the picpoul variety also has a fair amount of richness and texture that lingers as a satisfying grape-pulpy flavour after you've swallowed the oyster.
If you're not lucky enough to come across one of the rare few hundred half-bottles of Borrowed Cuttings in one of the restaurants that stock Moonlight Flat oysters, the good news is that some very good French examples of the grape - labelled Picpoul de Pinet - are available here: look particularly for the wines of Domaine de la Majone, and the brilliant biodynamic winery Château Maris.
And, remarkably, another Australian picpoul also exists, with a backstory that echoes Steve Felleti's.
Mark Lloyd is no stranger to pioneering European grape varieties on the other side of the world. His Coriole winery in McLaren Vale was the first to produce a sangiovese in South Australia in the late 1980s, and the first to produce a white from the Italian fiano grape in the mid-2000s.
"I fell in love with picpoul when I tried it at a winery in the Languedoc in 2006," says Lloyd. "So I managed to find a nursery who'd sell me some cuttings, and we finally got our first crop in 2015."
Lloyd also finds the interplay between freshness and richness in picpoul the key to its oyster-friendliness - enough grapey flavour to match the most briny of bivalves and the sweetest of seafood, but enough citrusy tang to clean the mouth of all the salt and creamy texture and leave you hungry for another taste.
"Having a wine that's different or unique gives people something to talk about in the cellar door," he says. "It might only be a small percentage of customers who are interested, but they are often enthusiastic and influential customers. And it takes time for new grapes to get wider traction. When we released our first sangiovese most customers rejected it. Now, though, everyone knows and drinks Australian sangiovese. Hopefully the same will happen with picpoul: people will get on board."