Pét-nat or Pétillant Naturel is a sparkling wine that’s been gaining popularity partly due to an enthusiastic crowd of gorgeous hipsters that are flooding the wine scene on Instagram. Naturally: we noticed.
Pét-Nat is a sparkling wine that doesn’t require a specific location, a specific grape varietal (unless you’re talking about Montlouis Pétillant Naturel—which we’re not), and is one of the oldest forms of sparkling wine production in use today—made using a method called ”Méthode Ancestrale” or “Méthode Rurale.” A good way to explain what Pét-nat is and why it’s interesting begins with explaining how something plenty of people have had before—champagne‚ is made. If you know champagne, don’t @ me: this is a simplification.
Champagne is made via the “traditional method” and involves a lot of steps:
- Pressing – Grapes are pressed and fermented in large tanks to make a “base wine.” At this point you have wine; the fact that this is one step shows how complex true champagne is.
- Second Fermentation – winemakers add sugar and specialized yeast selected to produce CO2—the bubbles—and then transfer them to specialized, extra-dark bottles that are made extra-strong (so extra). They then put a crown cap (regular bottle-cap) on top. During this step, they add riddling agents that cause the yeast stick to itself in a later step.
- Aging, Riddling, and Corking – None of this happens for Pét-nat so we’re going to put the steps together. The champagne is aged for 8-15 months (longer if the winery can afford it) neck-down—by shaking and settling yeast is forced into the neck of the bottle. Winemakers rapidly freeze the bottles and pop the cap off — shooting all of that yeast out as a frozen pellet (yeast pellet, gross); after which they add some wine and sugar and put a champagne cork & cage on it, happy new year.
Anyways, Pét-Nat is made through a hybrid of the first steps: you make your base wine but before the yeast eats all of the sugar in the wine (which it converts to alcohol) the wine is put in a bottle and a crown cap is put on. As a result, you get some bubbles (not as much as champagne) as well as a wine that has lower alcohol than you would with champagne, usually around 11-11.5%. Due to the lack of riddling or disgorgement (removing sediment) a bottle of Pét-Nat is going to look reminiscent of a bottle of kombucha, with some stuff floating around in there. If you open a bottle above temperature or after a little agitation (some will do it regardless of handling), you’re going to have beautiful sparkling wine streaming down your arm in a beautiful mess due to all the sediment and yeast.
This lack of disgorgement is a contributing factor to the lack of wide-spread popularity with consumers: remember the last person you grossed out attempting to explain why you love your kombucha; it’s hard to sell a bottle of this stuff in Safeway.
Another factor holding Pét-Nat back is the obvious risk involved for the producer: before your wine has completed fermentation you’ve sealed the product up to await a consumer; you entirely cutout a quality control check and leave it up to chance. Some producers often take advantage of this: what could be more natural or have more terroir than a wine allowed to some extent to produce itself? It’s poetic, but is your average consumer going to understand that they just opened up a collaborative experimental tome featuring the farmer and the soil? Probably not. They’re gonna taste “baind-aids and feet” and look for a cork next time.
Luckily, all of these risks highlight the values and traits of a product that gets a growing number of consumers excited: a wine that prioritizes the land over totalitarian production, insists you enjoy nuance over perfection and takes some prior knowledge to get your hands on and enjoy. In short, a wine that’s interesting.
Our kombucha-loving, funk-curious, bubble-obsessed office is in that corner of the market so we picked up a few bottles, dusted off our champagne flutes, and cracked them open.
Here’s what we picked up:
- Field Recordings – 2016 Chardonnay Pét-Nat
- Haarmeyer Wine Cellars – 2016 Petillant Naturel Chenin Blanc – Clarksburg
Field Recordings 2016 Pét-Nat
This was fruity – a few people noted peaches and lime. It took tasting the second wine to really stick out, but it had a lingering scent not dissimilar to a Belgian ale; which a few of us really enjoyed. Finished with a distinct sourdough note, like a strong, fresh starter.
Haarmeyer Wine Cellars – 2016 Petillant Naturel
Chenin Blanc – Clarksburg
Though it was a close call, this was the favorite of the two. Notes of crisp apple and stone fruit, with a strong, fresh acidity that reminded us of the oils you get when you express a lemon. It was remarkably refreshing—well-suited for a stemless wine glass sitting in a shaded chaise lounge, but still comfortable in a coupe in a dimly-lit restaurant next to a salad.
Final verdict? We’ll take our mimosas orange-juice-free and we’ll be drinking them from the bottle with a large bendy straw; this is a sipper that goes down all too easy. It’s high acidity (the second one) and low ABV make it remarkably quaffable, while it’s unconventional nature begs the drinker to strip the edifice of champagne drinking: crack this open at new years, sure, it’s a conversation starter; but lug it to backyard barbeques, pour it with charcuterie and cheese, serve it next to a freaking turkey: it’s good. Pét-nat is interesting but it’s not in a vacuum: it’s part of a natural winemaking movement that’s digging up traditional methods and taking risky moves to create interesting product—and where there are bubbles, there we’ll be.
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