Is it wine? No. Is it a spritzer? No. But it's made from grapes? Yes.
So what is it?
“Piquette” comes from the French word piquer, meaning to prickle, as it’s ever-so-slightly fizzy and makes your tongue tingle. It originated in France, although a similar form of this beverage has been made throughout history in many countries. When workers had finished in the winery, they would be allowed to take home some of the grape pomace that had been pressed that day. They then repressed the pomace and added water to referment the remaining grape juice. The result? Diluted, low-alcohol wine.
So why isn’t there more Piquette knowing around? This is not a wine that can be industrially produced, or even commercially produced on a large scale.
The Two Juices
There are two types of grape juice that go into a wine. The first is called “free run” juice, which is more relevant to red and orange wine. When grapes are foot trodden or crushed, and sit macerating in a tank - usually for between seven and 30 days - the juice from within the berries will exude naturally under the weight of the berries and liquid. It looks like a soup. This juice is considered the most high quality, and is drained off before the rest of the berries goes into a press.
When the berries are placed into the press, often another gush of free run juice emerges under the weight of the berries in a smaller container. However, eventually this juice stops emerging, and the press cycle begins. The juice that comes out with the press is subject to more force, and more compaction amongst the berries and grape skins, and therefore it’s more tannic. In addition, it’s often a lot richer with more sugar as the pulp is squeezed. The first part of the press juice is considered good quality, but this tannic and richer side of the press juice that emerges can quickly dominate and overpower an otherwise elegant wine. So, for high quality wines, often the press cycle is stopped even when there’s still a significant amount of liquid remaining in the berries. For less high quality wine, like your sub-£8 giant supermarket brands, every ounce of press juice is used and you probably wouldn’t be able to extract any more juice even if you tried.
For white wine, the most common form of vinification is the “direct press” method - so the berries will go directly into the press and not sit macerating together. Therefore, there usually isn’t a free-run juice, but the press cycle will again stop before the juice becomes too tannic or rich.
Either way, for winemakers making high quality wines, there’s always that annoying bit of juice left that they just have to let go to waste: this gets sent to the distillery or is used for compost. Unless… They make Piquette.
The style of Piquette is slowly being revived by artisanal growers who want to make the most of their grapes; the likes of Yann Bertrand in Beaujolais and Claus Preisinger in the Burgenland have been playing around with the method.
It was on a permaculture farm in the Hudson Valley that Piquette saw a new American history being born for the style. Todd Cavallo of Wild Arc Farm came across an old book on the history of French wine and uncovered a section on Piquette. He’d been thinking about how to create a lower alcohol style for a while and it seemed like a no-brainer; here was a solution that seemed almost too good to be true.
Indeed, sometimes it is too good to be true. When working with richer grape juice, the pH levels are already higher, and when the juice is added to water (of which the pH is circa 7, whereas the grape juice will be between 3 and 4.5), this raises the pH further. This means that if the winemaker isn’t careful, it can become a music festival for bacteria and rogue yeasts, but if you work cleanly and with luck on your side, you can avoid this.
Wildflower Honey or à la Pét-nat?
Each winemaker has their own method. Todd lets the pomace soak in a tank with water for between one to two weeks, after which he puts the wine into barrels or a tank to finish fermenting the mixture until it’s dry. After this, he adds back 15% of the original finished wine, to give the piquette more acidity and help it to become more stable, and bottles it together with a tiny bit of local wildflower honey. This honey restarts the fermentation in the bottle, creating a lightly sparkling piquette.
Meanwhile, in Austria for Claus Preisinger’s first experiment, he took slightly pressed whole bunch Syrah and Blaufränkisch, which still had a fair bit of juice remaining in the berries, and added water to them overnight. He pressed the mixture already the next day and bottled it while the wine was still fermenting, so that it would continue its fermentation in the bottle, making bubbles. This is similar to a pét-nat in style - in essence, this is a pét-nat spritzer. He says,
“It’s like flavoured water wine! I guess I was lucky - I didn’t think too much about it, but yes - if you’re not careful it’s like a bomb in the cellar.”
Winemakers like these guys are reinventing history; something that was once upon a time considered scrap wine has now become the ideal summer beverage that avoids good quality wine from healthy vineyards going to waste. The best part? You can sip it throughout the day without getting drunk and having to go to bed at 6pm. In a world where we should be thinking more about reducing waste and drinking less, piquette gives us the perfect conglomerate beverage.