The Wild World of Pét-Nats
Pétillant Naturel wines are fascinating little oddities of the wine world. Their quixotic aromatic complexity and wide variation of flavors and textures can be difficult to place, and many hesitate when contemplating buying a bottle. These treasures, however, offer a delightful and tasty glimpse into the history of sparkling wine, and can be excellent fun. Read on to learn all about pét-nats, where they come from, and how to drink them!
“Pétillant Naturel” is only one name for these fizzy gems. Méthode ancestrale, méthode rurale, and méthode gaillacoise are a few others. Pét-nats are wines that are gently bubbly, with low levels of alcohol and fruity, sometimes lightly funky aromatics. They are truly gastronomic wines, pairing with a wide array of dishes and cuisines due to their unique structure.
Flavors and aromas of pét-nats range from light, bright stone fruits to tart cherry and rhubarb to earthy, agrarian notes. They can be crisp and clean, or heavily textured. Acidity is generally quite high, making them very refreshing. And though most are dry, some classic examples can be slightly sweet. Many have whimsical labels and funny names to boot.
When people today think of sparkling wine, Champagne is what comes to mind most. The stories of Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon creating the elegant style of these celebratory bubbles abound. However, long before the first cork was popped on a luxury bottle of Champagne, sparkling wines were regularly produced via the méthode ancestrale.
Legend has it that Gallic shepherds in the today’s southern Rhône accidentally invented sparkling wine by forgetting about flasks left in a river to cool, retrieving them the following year. Pliny the Elder wrote copious praises about the interesting style. This is today’s Clairette de Die.
Monks in the monastery of Saint-Hilaire (in Limoux, far in the southwest of France) were churning out bottles of delicious bubbly made from the local grape Blanquette as least as far back as 1531. They inspired similar creations in neighboring Gaillac.
The little French Alpine town of Bugey boasts its own historic pét-nat style: Bugey Cerdon, a red often semi-sweet bubbly made from Gamay and Poulsard grapes. Vines were first cultivated here by the Romans and later refined by monks, who made this fizzy wine legendary.
Pét-nats are experiencing a comeback today thanks to some adventurous winemakers, but don’t let this fool you: this style is ancient and deserves more than just a passing glance. Now let’s see what exactly makes a wine a pét-nat.
Though pét-nats are often marketed as light-hearted natural wines, they in fact take a high level of technical skill to master. Let’s first discuss the more renowned Champagne method for comparison.
When making Champagne the first step is to pick the grapes very early, while the acid levels are still high and the flavors and aromas are fairly neutral. These grapes are pressed, and the juice is fermented completely dry. The resulting wine is rather unremarkable.
This wine is aged, blended, and bottled. Into the bottle goes the liqueur de tirage, a mixture of sugar, yeast, and wine. The bottle is capped and let to rest as a second fermentation starts up inside. This is the source of the bubbles of carbon dioxide in a Champagne: the CO2 created during fermentation has nowhere to go but into solution.
After fermentation, the bottles are positioned such that the spent yeasts gather in the neck. During the process known as disgorgement, the yeast plugs are removed using built up pressure in the bottles, and a wine-sugar solution is added to top off the bottles. They are then corked and aged.
Now, let’s discuss the Pétillant Naturel method.
This winemaking style begins like the Champagne method, although grapes are harvested a little riper. Juice is put in a tank and fermentation begins. After partial fermentation, the juice is cooled to below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This slows the yeast action to a crawl, effectively pausing the fermentation. This can also be achieved by using a coarse filter to remove most of the yeast, leaving just a little for the next stage.
The juice is bottled at this point. The alcohol by now has typically reached anywhere from 6-10%. The final 2-3% will be gained in the bottle. The bottles are closed with crown caps, and the temperature is allowed to rise. The yeast begins its activity again, and the fermentation completes in the bottle.
Arresting the fermentation must be done carefully, and at precisely the right time, to get an ideal finished product. Some producers claim there is a window of just a few hours to make this call. And it’s typically difficult to predict the results, as the wine is bottled with many remaining active variables. But this is the fun of pét-nats (and sometimes the bane of existence for the producers)!
Our Favorite Pét-Nats
So where do you go for a good pét-nat? Check out the bottles below for some of our favorites. If you can’t find them, contact us and we’ll source them for you!
2016 Primož Štoka Vitovksa Penece – Primorska, Slovenia - $26 retail
The Štoka farm is located north-east of Trieste about 5 miles from the Adriatic in the village of Krajna Vas. The Kras, or “Carso” as it is called in nearby Italy, is Europe’s first recognized cross border wine region, the two countries even adhere to similar production regulations. Despite its excellent position, very little land in the Kras is suitable for grape cultivation, only 600 hectares of vines are planted between the 2 countries. The tiny amount of fertile soil is the result of various human and natural events. Historically oak forests dominated the land until the Venetians deforested nearly everything to build ships and city of Venice. The resulting erosion and the famously strong winds called the “burja” caused huge amounts of topsoil to simply blow away. People learned how to build stonewalls called “griže” to protect against the wind and small manmade lakes to gather rain called “kali” to keep crops alive. Farmers, including the Štoka family, even learned to transport soil to naturally protected locations.
For over 200 years, the Štoka family has nurtured the native red Teran and white Vitovska in the iron rich “terra rossa” that the Kras is famous for.
Believed to be a cross between Prosecco Tondo and Malvasia Bianca, Vitovska is the white grape of the Kras. Made as a "pétillant-naturel" or naturally sparkling wine. In this process, winemakers stop the normal fermentation before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol. The wine is bottled under a crown-cap, trapped with its yeast cells and some residual sugar. As the yeast eats the sugar, gentle bubbles are created. Decant off the heavy lees (sediment) and enjoy!
2017 Weingut Brand Pét-Nat Rosé – Pfalz, Germany - $32 retail
Daniel and Jonas Brand are fifth-generation wine makers in the northern Pfalz, currently with 18 hectares in the family. Soil types in the northern Pfalz range from clay and loam, to loess, and limestone at different states of erosion. For a region that gets most of their rain in winter, the soil plays a vital role in holding water for the vines. They began experimenting with converting their vineyards to organic farming in 2011 and will be fully certified with the 2018 vintage.
This wine is a blend of mostly Pinot Noir, with about 10% old-vine Portugieser (vine age is about 40 years old). Deep magenta, jewel-toned rose in color, with a sprightly mousse and a mélange of tart and juicy red fruits: raspberry, watermelon, sour cherry, red plum all burst forth and wash over the palate, with bright acidity priming for the next sip.
2018 Yamakiri Wines Filigreen Farm Sin Eater Pét-Nat – Mendocino, CA - $30 retail
Yamakiri Wines is an ongoing collaboration between Alex Crangle and Lisa Bauer. Alex is the brains and the brilliance behind the wine and cider making; Lisa mows, prunes, frets, delivers boxes and kegs of wine and cider, and is generally the owner of Yamakiri. Together, they share a commitment to biodynamic and minimally invasive growing and winemaking techniques, and a love of fermented fruit beverages that showcase the place they come from.
Nestled in the hills of Yorkville, California, Yamakiri is located in the Yorkville Highlands. One mountain range away from the Pacific ocean, they enjoy a moderate climate and benefit from warm afternoon air and cool evening breezes, which allow for an extended growing season. Yamakiri, or ‘Mountain Fog,’ is a constant presence.
This Pét-Nat is made from Pinot Gris grapes. They are whole cluster pressed and fermented with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel tanks. The wine is bottled while still sweet, at 2.5 g/l RS; fermentation continues in the bottle. Cloudy, with tiny bubbles, this Pét-Nat is currently off-dry, with a mouthwatering finish. A living product, it will continue to ferment for months to come and evolve over time in bottle. It carries notes of lychee, lilac and Spring honeycomb. Layers of rose, melon rind and citrus foam belay a tart russet pear flavor core. 12.5% alcohol. 118 cases produced.
2015 Fuchs und Hase Vol. 5 – Kamptal, Austria - $30 retail
Talented winemakers, close friends and Pét-Nat lovers Alwin & Stefanie Jurtschitsch and Martin & Anna Arndorfer set out to collaborate on a Pét-Nat only project.
The first bottle of Fuchs and Hase came in 2012, but after Alwin traveling in Austrialia, and Martin traveling in New York, they developed a much wider range of tasting experiences and a deeper understanding of pét-nat. Using this wider knowledge and stoked passion, they released their first “Volumes” from Weingut Fuchs and Hase from the 2015 vintage.
This naturally cloudy pét-nat smells both of yeast and freshly cut russet-pear peel, giving an impression of full, ripe fruit. The palate has the same fresh pear notes as well as that textural element of peel. Bone dry, it comes with finest fizz and is utterly refreshing, if rustic. It would shine as a full-flavored picnic wine, with a lastingly dry finish.
NV Bernard Rondeau Bugey Cerdon – Savoie, France - $20 retail
Cerdon is absolutely delightful as an aperitif. Cerdon is relatively sweet and is always pink. Its white wine world equivalents are perhaps Clairette de Die or Moscato d'Asti. Its red comparisons are perhaps Brachetto d'Acqui or Lambrusco. Cerdon, however, is normally made with either pure Gamay or a combination of Gamay and Poulsard grapes.