As wine lovers continue to become open to new styles of bubbly, the choices are no longer limited to Prosecco, Cava and Champagne. One in particular, pétillant naturel, or pét-nat, is in full force, becoming a popular new style for domestic wine production.
As it happens, the style isn’t new at all.
What is pét-nat?
Pét-nat, or Méthode Ancestrale, is a method of sparkling wine production used all over the world. Unlike traditional-method sparkling wines, like Champagne, which add sugar and yeast to dry, still wine in order trigger a second fermentation and produce bubbles, pét-nat works by bottling wine that is only partially fermented.
As the first and only fermentation continues in bottle, the resulting carbon dioxide (CO2) is trapped. After a period of rest that can be as short as a couple of months, the gas is absorbed into the wine as bubbles and the pét-nat is ready to drink.
How pét-nat differs from Champagne
Pét-nat is essentially the easiest method to get bubbles into a wine and it was the first way that sparkling wine was produced, earning it the name Méthode Ancestrale. This is in contrast to the Champagne style, formerly called Méthode Champenoise (a term since banned by the European Union), now primarily known as Méthode Traditionelle, Méthode Classique or simply the “traditional method.”
Although Champagne is the most famous French region for sparkling wine, there are also esteemed appellations in the country that produce in the pét-nat style.
Montlouis-sur-Loire Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), where the grape is Chenin Blanc, gave legal status to the name Pétillant Originel on the label in 2007 to distinguish its pét-nats from the traditional-method sparklers already made in the area. Domaine La Grange Tiphaine, a star producer in Montlouis, has helped in the resurgence of this style. It makes 100% of its sparkling wines as pét-nat.
Another French region where pét-nat is highly regarded is Gaillac AOC in Southwest France, home to the Mauzac grape. Pét-nat is so integral to the production in this area that they call it Méthode Gaillacoise, after the region. Florent Plageoles of Domaine Plageoles, who produces a Méthode Gaillacoise Mauzac, says that the grape is particularly suited for this purpose. It is harvested with an alcohol potential of 10.5–12% alcohol by volume (abv), which is ideal for sparkling wine.
The nearby Languedoc Appellation of Limoux also produces sparkling wine with Mauzac, and has a separate pét-nat appellation called Limoux Méthode Ancestrale AOC.
The method behind pét-nat is so simple that sometimes it happens by accident. Wines bottled with residual sugar that haven’t been stabilized can referment spontaneously in the bottle, presenting undesired fizz.
With such potential for chaos, to create a balanced wine that represents terroir and variety is what James Christopher Tracy, winemaker of Long Island’s Channing Daughters, calls “exactitude within a non-exact style.”
“While pét-nat doesn’t require the equipment of méthode Champenoise, it’s not the easiest thing to pull off in the world,” says Tracy.
The best time to assess sparkling wine is not immediately after it’s opened, when the bead is at its strongest. The softer bubbles and lower pressure of pét-nat make the wine more immediately expressive after opening, and allows for a more generous aroma.
His winery made 10 pét-nats in the 2017 vintage: five rosés, four whites and a red. According to Tracy, the biggest challenge is “keeping those bottles tame and consistent and beautifully expressive, and most importantly, delicious and reflective of where they come from.”
Pét-nats can pick up bad bacteria in an uncontrolled fermentation. It takes a skilled winemaker to wrangle them into something stable and drinkable.
“No natural wine is controlled, but [pét-nat] is already bottled and still not finished, so it has an element of unpredictability, which to me is part of the fun and mystery,” says natural wine importer Jenny Lefcourt, of Jenny & Francois Selections.
Sediment (or “To disgorge or not to disgorge, that is the question”)
With pét-nat, clarity is always in question. Wine that finishes fermentation in bottle will produce the same sediment as traditional-method sparklers. The difference is that with pét-nat, there’s no requirement to remove that sediment by disgorging.
Whether or not to disgorge a pét-nat is possibly the biggest divide in the whole category.
The French winemakers at Grange Tiphaine disgorge their Pétillant Originel in accordance with AOC rules, but Florent Plageole’s Mauzac Nature does not. Neither does Channing Daughters, where Tracy says he appreciates sediment in the final product.
Chill the bottle upright in an ice bucket for 30 minutes if you’d like to control the sediment in a hazy wine. The cold keeps sediment at the bottom of the bottle, allowing you to pour four relatively clear glasses.
“[It’s] one of the big differentiating factors, and it speaks toward the rustic Méthode Ancestrale style,” says Tracy. “When you start to riddle and disgorge, you’re into traditional-method processes that cost a lot, and take a lot of time and space and new equipment.”
On appearance alone, disgorgement is more likely to appeal to a traditional wine drinker used to the clarity of mainstream sparkling wine. Also, the sediment has an effect on how the wine feels and tastes on the palate.
One tip, printed on the label of Channing Daughters’ pét-nat, is to chill the bottle upright in an ice bucket for 30 minutes if you’d like to control the sediment in a hazy wine. The cold keeps sediment at the bottom of the bottle, allowing you to pour four relatively clear glasses of wine. The remainder contains most of the yeast, which can be enjoyed in its cloudy richness.
How your wine was made will tell you how bubbly it is
The traditional method produces the most bubbly sparkling wine, typically achieving 5–6 atmospheres of pressure. That’s comparable to the air pressure in a bus tire, which explains why Champagne corks are so thick and bound by wire cages.
While pét-nats are found in a range of intensities, they almost always measure less than 5 atmospheres. Compared to the exciting and violent bubbling of a traditional-method wine, pét-nat displays calmer foam, typically with larger bubbles on the palate.
Bubbles serve many purposes in wine. Naturally acidic, carbon dioxide creates the prickly tang found in sparkling beverages, and also cleanses the palate. That’s something appreciated by anyone who has ever had sparkling wine with a cheese plate.
But bubbles can also be a distraction. The best time to assess a bottle of sparkling wine is not immediately after it’s opened, when the bead is at its strongest. The softer bubbles and lower pressure of pét-nat make the wine more immediately expressive after opening, and allows for a more generous aroma.
Why make pét-nat?
Many small producers start with pét-nat, because it’s the most accessible way to make sparkling wine and doesn’t require the expensive equipment needed to make traditional-method bottlings.
However, Michael Cruse, a winemaker in California with two labels, prefers to do both.
“I want to look at a site and make the best expression of that site—with bubbles in it,” says Cruse. “With Chardonnay or Pinot Noir [under his Ultramarine label], I find that traditional method is a better way to examine the structure, because otherwise, the variety’s not strong enough to overcome that beery or cidery element of pét-nat.”
A grape like Valdiguié, a red variety he describes as having “a kind of crazy aromatic profile,” gets muddled in that same process.
“Because that variety has such strong character, the pét-nat method is a little more transparent to variety,” says Cruse. His Sparkling Valdiguié Pétillant Naturel is sold under his other label, Cruse Wine Co.
Regardless of method, Cruse’s winemaking is exacting, and his pét-nats are praised for their precision, acidity and quality of expression.
Even though many people consider it a special-occasion drink, sparkling wine is available in a wide range that rewards drinkers who explore them. While seemingly odd compared to rank-and-file fizzy wines, pét-nat’s popularity indicates a growing desire for wines that are more transparent in production and with a wider range of flavors.
Whether sparkling wine is a rare treat or an everyday pour, it’s becoming easier and more inviting to take the road less traveled.