Todd Cavallo’s memory was jogged when a friend showed him a passage from a book about the history of wine in 19th-century Europe. It related to a drink called piquette, a low-alcohol wine made from the second pressings of grape pomace, known to have been enjoyed by French farmhands and vineyard workers.
Cavallo had heard of piquette, but he never gave it much thought. The reminder proved timely. Cavallo, owner/winemaker at the small, sustainably focused Wild Arc Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, was looking for a way to reuse his pomace, the dense clumps of grape skins, seeds, stems and pulp that remain after juice has been pressed for wine. He’d experimented with distillation, but piquette seemed like the perfect solution.
After another year spent refining his technique, Cavallo released three piquettes from his 2017 vintage in the spring, and a fourth later that autumn, all from different grape varieties. He became the first producer to make a commercial piquette in North America.
These bottlings, low in alcohol and with a touch of fizz that makes them reminiscent of wine spritzers, quickly gained fans. And it wasn’t just consumers who lapped up Wild Arc’s drinkability and affordable $15 price point, but also fellow winemakers. Within a year, more than a dozen small-scale, mostly natural-leaning winemakers from Oregon to Texas, Quebec and New York’s Finger Lakes, announced plans to release their own piquette.
That figure is growing.
“We’re always searching for exciting new side projects,” says Lisa Hinton, winemaker at Old Westminster Winery in Maryland. “We got our hands on a bottle from Todd at Wild Arc shortly after he bottled the first modern piquette [that] we’re aware of. We loved it, so much so that we were inspired to try our hand at piquette, incorporating some of our own ideas.”
Where did piquette come from?
Derived from the French word for “prick” or “prickle,” which describes the drink’s slight fizz, piquette dates to ancient Greek and Roman times, when it was known as lora. Considered a meager, cheap-to-produce drink made from the scraps of winemaking, it was given to slaves and field workers.
In France, piquette is said to have been the preferred drink of vineyard workers at the lunch table, as its low alcohol encouraged post-lunch productivity rather than an alcohol-fueled stupor. In Italy, piquette has various names including acqua pazza, acquarello and vinello.
While the style is tied closely with France, nearly all European winemaking countries have their own version of piquette, usually made and consumed by field workers and their families.
The challenges of making piquette
Despite its working-class roots and deceptively simple recipe—just add water to pomace—modern piquette production comes with its fair share of challenges.
“Bacterial infections can occur much more easily when the alcohol levels drop and the pH rises with the water addition,” says Cavallo. “Some of the lactic acid bacteria that thrive at higher pH are what actually gives the piquette its interesting flavor profiles, but you can get too much [Brettanomyces], acetobacter or other baddies, that can ruin an entire tank if you aren’t clean and careful.”
To combat this, many winemakers add a small amount of wine back into the tank. They also introduce honey or sugar before bottling to kick-start a second fermentation, which gives piquette a soft spritz. Most producers ferment with wild yeast and spontaneous fermentation and don’t add sulfur. Alcohol levels tend to fall between 4–9% alcohol by volume (abv). Piquette can be found packaged in Belgian beer bottles, under crown caps and even in cans.
Because piquette involves the reuse of a byproduct that would normally be thrown out, winemakers often work with whatever grapes they have on hand from their traditional wines. Different varieties yield different results.
“I like to say that [piquette] takes one of the common tastes from a grape and just blows it out,” says Cavallo. “For example, [Wild Arcs’] 2017 Riesling piquette was like drinking a tropical pineapple soda. The 2017 Traminette was all elderflower, and the 2017 Cab Franc had a very green nose.”
Piquette around the world
In Australia, Burgundy-born winemaker Gilles Lapalus first made piquette from Syrah pomace 16 years ago at the renowned Victoria winery, Sutton Grange, before he started his own label, Maison Lapalus.
Last year, he tried his hand at piquette once more, when he used pomace from his winery’s Nebbiolo, Syrah and Mourvèdre bottlings. This year, he’s settled on a Nebbiolo piquette for its aromatic notes and light color. To date, production has been too small for public release.
Some, like Regan Meador, the founder of Southold Farm + Cellar who relocated from the North Fork of New York’s Long Island to the Hill Country of Texas several years ago, believe we shouldn’t be thinking too hard about piquette.
“To me, simplicity wins out,” he says. “Just like the Romans and the many who came after them, this isn’t an endeavor of place, or varietal or any of the current trappings of wine. It is quite literally using the scraps. So we don’t separate varieties, we make one big ‘pot’ and then keg- [and sometimes bottle-] condition it.
“Very, very simple, low alcohol, inexpensive and crazy refreshing.”
“[Piquette] fills the space where many people would drink beer,” says Christopher Missick, owner/winemaker of Bellangelo Winery in the Finger Lakes. “I have had many people comment that our piquette is reminiscent of some of their favorite sour beers.”
Erin Rasmussen, owner/winemaker at the new American Wine Project, based out of Madison, Wisconsin, agrees.
“It’s not meant to be serious or profound,” she says. “It’s low abv, fizzy and crushable. From a winemaking standpoint, it’s appealing for the same reasons. There are no expectations. It’s delicious and fun to make. I am also convinced that the Venn diagram of beer drinkers and wine drinkers is slowly becoming one circle.”
Piquette’s unpretentious appeal suggests we may soon see more of it, and that this style’s ugly duckling reputation may soon become a thing of the past.
Six Piquettes to try
Wild Arc Farm 2017 Piquette Traminette
American Wine Project 2018 Wit and Wisdom Piquette
Bellangelo 2018 Piquette
Old Westminster Winery 2018 Pet-Nat Piquette
Southold Farm + Cellar 2018 Piquette (recently bottled and soon to be released)
Domaine Julien Guillot NV Authentique et Veritable Piquette