Piquette is a centuries-old tradition, a drink originally consumed by European vineyard workers. Unable to afford the wine they produced for their overseers, they rehydrated pressed grape pomace with water, then fermented it to make a secondary wine. The result was often tart, with a vinegar-like flavor that could sting, or, in French, piquer. Adding water to the grape pomace increases the ferment’s pH, which in turn creates an ecosystem of bacteria and yeast like that seen in sour beer or kombucha; handled well, piquette can be a refreshing, low-alcohol, conscientious beverage.
Though the rare French piquette does find its way to the US, you’re more likely to taste some if you can befriend a vigneron. EU law limits piquette to personal consumption or distillation, requiring an exemption for export. Natural-wine evangelist Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, MOF, says it’s complicated to make piquette well, as the final product can be too herbaceous, diluted or bacterial. But before addressing any of those concerns, she says, “To make good piquette, you need good wine.” The best piquette she’s ever had was in Bordeaux, while visiting Pascale Choime and Laurence Alias of Closerie des Moussis; the vigneronnes poured Lepeltier a semi-carbonic merlot-based piquette. There, in Arsac, the duo farm a range of small parcels under biodynamics. They work with a total of five acres in the Haut-Médoc and Margaux, their vines ranging from 30 to 150 years old. It’s the same kind of agrarian setting you’d envision where piquette got its start and still produces its best work.
Just three years ago, this peasants’ drink made its way across the pond to Wild Arc, a ten-acre biodynamic farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. Owner Todd Cavallo had learned about piquette from a friend who’d read about it in a history book on 19th-century French and Italian wine; in 2017, Cavallo produced what he believes to be the first commercial piquette in the US. He produced 400 cases in 2019, including a Hudson Valley traminette that shows off the sour side of piquette with its tart lemon and sea-breeze freshness.
Wild Arc’s traminette and other piquettes are among the 2,500-bottle low-intervention, organic and biodynamic selections on the wine list penned by Lepeltier and Arnaud Tronche at Racines in New York. She finds that piquette’s vegetal and high-acid flavors, extracted from the stems and skins in the grape pomace, work well with the restaurant’s menu, which focuses on vegetables and includes fermented flavors in the housemade kimchi and pickles.
At least 20 other American winemakers have followed Cavallo’s lead, many in New York and along the East Coast, and a handful in California and Oregon as well as in other states. The ten winemakers I spoke with all linked their introduction to piquette to Cavallo; six of them made it for the first time last year, including Monte Rio and Ryme in California, Kramer in Oregon and Lincoln Peak in Vermont. Field Recordings, in Paso Robles, California, produced some at the request of its Missouri distributor.
“It’s terrifying when you start to see stuff growing on your pomace after you add water,” says winemaker Erin Rasmussen of American Wine Project in Wisconsin. “How far you let that go will dictate how earthy, funky, spicy or fruity the piquette will be.” Her 2019 Light Verse Piquette is made from four white hybrid varieties, the pomace a mix of what’s left over after fermentation, direct pressing and skin-contact regimes. She soaks that pomace for ten days before pressing it to create an aromatic wine that speaks of springtime, fresh honeydew and honeysuckle.
Sean Comninos of William Heritage, in New Jersey, produced two piquettes last year after visiting Cavallo’s farm. One was made from the remnants of his syrah, the pomace rehydrated for several days, then pressed and blended with finished carbonic syrah; before bottling, he added some local wildflower honey to generate some fizz. “It had beautiful acidity,” he says, “considering it was rehydrated with water and [was based on] what we had been composting.” The final product is seven percent alcohol, radish-pink and aromatic, reminiscent of herbal tea, with light red-fruit flavors and scents of rosebuds.
The curiosity about piquette’s potential reaches across the winemakers’ board, whether it be wineries natural-identifying, natural-adjacent or artisanal, and Cavallo believes it’s inevitable that more producers will get into the game: “Companies are going to realize they’re sitting on a gold mine of waste product they could turn into another beverage.”
Or maybe several more: Cavallo is now using his pomace a third time for a co-fermented cider, before he returns it to the soil as compost. For winemakers, piquette’s best attribute may be how it pushes them to reconsider what is, or isn’t, waste.
This story appears in the print issue of June 2020.
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