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Rod Byers: Pied de Cuvé at Montoliva Winery

Pied de cuvé is a way to populate native yeasts that are living in the vineyard without the invasion of commercial yeasts.
Submitted photo to The Union |

“Say what?” I said.

It was Mark Henry, owner and winemaker at Montoliva Winery (www.montoliva.com) in Chicago Park, asking if I was interested in the pied de cuvé he was planning to do.

“Absolutely,” I answered.



And then I googled pied de cuvé to figure out what it was that I was interested in.

It turns out, pied means foot in French and cuvé is essentially a batch of wine. Put them together and literally, you’re stomping grapes with your feet.




When I first learned that “pied” were involved, I never thought the “pied” would be mine.

As I was driving along the scenic 174 corridor towards Chicago Park on a gorgeous fall morning last week, I was wondering why Mark wanted to do this?

“It’s all about the yeast,” said Henry.

The process

Commercial wine yeasts are strong and efficient and quickly dominate any cellar into which they are introduced, to the exclusion of any native yeasts that are lurking about.

Think of a pied de cuvé as the way to populate the native yeast that are living in the vineyard, on the grapes, without the interference of commercial yeast strains. One week before Henry thinks the vineyard is ready to harvest (Oct. 4 this year) he started his pied de cuvé.

That involved picking 200 pounds of the best, and most pristine looking grapes. But before he could even do that it meant washing everything involved, clippers, bins, and feet, to be sure everything was yeast and bacteria free.

It also meant not using any winery equipment to prevent any chance of cross contamination. To ensure that, the cuvé remains in the vineyard with the rest of the grapes until they are picked seven days later.

In the absence of using the crusher/stemmer living over at the winery, the simplest, most effective way of crushing grapes is by foot. The grapes are stomped in a bucket and then poured, skins, stems, seeds and all, into a larger bin. That’s it.

Put a loose cover over the top to keep the fruit flies out and let it sit. The native yeasts, now in contact with the grape sugars, start to ferment. The process stimulates millions more native yeast cells creating a rip-roaring starter batch.

A week later when the rest of the grapes are picked, the pied de cuvé is used to jump start the entire fermentation with actively fermenting native yeasts before any of the commercial strains hanging around the winery can get into the act.

Winemakers use commercial strains of yeast because the results are predictable. There’s no telling what might happen with indigenous yeasts. The whole plan seemed like a lot of effort with a big uncertainty at the end.

Henry recognizes that the ferment could go haywire but thinks the gamble worth the risk.

Henry’s philosophy

Henry believes strongly in the “somewhereness” of wine. He believes that wine is of a place. He believes part of that “somewhereness” includes using the native yeasts on the grapes. They are part of the flavor of the place. The pied de cuvé allows him to experiment with that.

It’s all part of Henry’s grand plan creating Chicago Park as the center of his wine universe. He is deeply dedicated to Italian varietals and believes Chicago Park is the perfect place to grow them.

In 2015, adding to his existing vineyard, Henry planted an acre each of Primitivo and Negroamaro, two southern Italian reds. This is their first mini-harvest. He anticipates about a ton of grapes rather than the four or five tons he expects in later years.

Why not start from the very beginning with a native yeast ferment?

Members of the Montoliva Adopt-A-Vine Club know the story from here. I adopted two vines in 2015. Last year I went out to Montoliva to prune my vines. Last week I harvested the grapes from my vines.

When my grapes were in the bucket, ready to become part of the pied de cuvé, how could I not get in there and squish them with my very own “pieds”?

If all goes according to plan expect to see this natural yeast Primitivo and Negroamaro field blend in your glass sometime in 2019.

In addition to Primitivo and Negroamaro, Henry grows Sangiovese, Teroldego, Montepulciano, Aglianico, Moscato and Aleatico making Montoliva the most focused producer of estate-grown Italian varietals in the northern Sierra Foothills.

A Chicago Park neighbor has recently planted a vineyard with more Italian varietals expressly for Montoliva. By 2020 Henry expects that 90 percent of everything he crushes will be grown in Chicago Park.

“How can I claim to be creating wines that express the flavor of Chicago Park if the grapes themselves don’t come from Chicago Park?” said Henry.

The reason that is so important is because Henry wants to establish a sub American Viticultural Area signaling out Chicago Park as a unique region within the already existing Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area.

It’s a tall order that will require tenacity, perseverance, and diligence, but Henry is convinced that American Viticultural Area recognition is an essential step in carving the path for Chicago Park to become the center of everybody else’s wine universe.

He believes those little yeasts, living in the vineyard, blanketing his grapes like hens on an egg, are going to help to get him there.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk On TV. You can find information about his wine classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.


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