Fruity, fizzy, refreshing and lower in alcohol – that describes the perfect wine for a casual summer picnic or cookout. It also describes pét-nat, short for pétillant-naturel – French for “naturally sparkling.” As the name implies, pétillant-naturel wines are light sparkling natural wines. They are fizzy without being fussy. Pét-nats can be made from red or white grapes and can be dry, semi-dry or sweet. They are popular with natural wine enthusiasts and those seeking a lighter wine in terms of style and alcohol by volume since they average around between eight and twelve percent ABV.
Curious to see what the buzz was about this style of fizz, I set out on a pét-nat taste-a-thon and asked a few tastemakers to share their opinions. Andre Compeyre, Chef Sommelier/Manager at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York City, is a native of Toulouse who once worked in restaurants in the Gaillac region of France which is considered the birthplace of pétillant-naturel wines. He told me, “Pét-nat is trendy and funky, a natural modern approach for an old-fashioned bubbly.” At Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, Compeyre serves pét-nat to guests as an apéritif with tuna tartare, burrata or basket of crudités; he also suggested serving with homemade terrines and pâtes, charcuterie or goat cheese and tomato salad.
An Ancient Process Embraced by Modern Winemakers
The process for making pét-nat, méthode ancestrale, is older than Champagne. With méthode champagnoise (called méthode traditionelle outside AOC Champagne) the base wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle with the winemaker adding a mixture of still wine, yeast and sugar- called liqueur de tirage- to the wine to kick start the effervescence. The wine rests on its lees (dissolved yeast and grape sediment) for a minimum of 12 months to develop softness and complexity. Once the secondary fermentation is completed, the winemaker removes the residual bottle sediment through a process called riddling followed by disgorgement, which removes any remaining deposits tucked in the neck of the bottle.
With méthode ancestrale the wine does not undergo a secondary fermentation; the unfinished wine is transferred from the tank to a bottle and crown capped where it completes its fermentation naturally without added yeasts or sugars. The sediment (lees) is usually not disgorged; though some winemakers may choose to disgorge and recap the wine with a champagne cork over the crown cap. Pét-nat wines are often slightly cloudy from the residual sediment left in the bottle after fermentation ends, a common characteristic with natural, unfiltered wines. The style is more frizzante than full-on bubbles like other sparkling wines since there is no secondary fermentation to create more effervescence. The result can sometimes taste more like a wine spritzer or hard fruit cider. My husband, also a wine writer, calls them “the beer of wine.”
But don’t let their seemingly simplicity fool you. Making pét-nat takes viticultural dexterity to achieve the right balance in the bottle. Being low to no intervention with spontaneous fermentation, they can be unpredictable. That’s why they are usually produced in smaller quantities.
A Pet Project for Winemakers
A few winemakers told me they started making pét-nats as a pet project to create a new signature style of wine, perhaps even a hobby wine. However, as curiosity and popularity for pét-nats increase among enthusiasts, producers are stepping up to answer the demand. Pét-nat wines also provide an affordable sparkling alternative to produce since they require less capital investment and time, according to Andrew Jones, owner and winemaker for Field Recordings Wines in Paso Robles, CA. Jones said he started making pét-nat to make a sparkling wine for everyday consumers. He said he also enjoys making esoteric wines and uses dry hops instead of yeast to make one of his pét-nats.
“We ferment in tank until the wine gets to the exact point to bottle when fermentation is about to finish. It’s important to capture the right window for fermentation which can take anywhere from two to five weeks. It depends on the varietal and also the harvest and weather.” Speaking with him, I sensed his enthusiasm for combining creativity with chemistry. He told me, “A signature of pét-nats is the wines are alive in the bottle; we like how they evolve over time.”
Experiencing Pet-Nat First-Hand
Many wine shops have added pét-nats as popularity in natural wines and low ABV options increase. Leon & Son Wine Shop in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood offers over a dozen pét-nats. Owner Chris Leon noted that pét-nat is intended to be an easy-going wine and should not be taken too seriously, but he also underscored their quality and diversity. “Some of these wines are more like Basque hard ciders or even crafted fruit beers; most are hand-crafted and can convey a sense a place (terroir). Some can even age well. They are fun for customers who want to try something experiential.”
Pét-nats pair with just about any food that you would enjoy with sparkling wine. Their fruitiness works especially well with savory and spicy dishes; think peppery fried or grilled chicken, Szechuan dishes and tandoori chicken. Being lower in alcohol, they provide a lighter option for warmer weather and holiday entertaining. The rainbow of pale colors, flavors and textures in the different bottles are fun conversation starters and perfect for chilling down and sharing with friends. So, grab a few bottles, a picnic hamper, cooler and blanket and go “pét naturel” this summer.
Seven to Try
Most pét-nat wines retail for $22 to $33 a bottle. Drink them well-chilled (55 degrees) in large wine glasses. Once opened they can keep for up to two days if capped with a sparkling wine stopper. Here are a few to try:
Field Recordings Dry Hop Pet-Nat 2018 (Paso Robles, CA) 100% Chardonnay $25.
Menti Roncaie Sui Lieviti 2017 (DOC Soave) 100% Garganega. $22
Chandon Hills Vineyard Scar of the Sea Pétillant-Naturel 2018 (Central Coast, CA) 100% Chardonnay. $30
Jamsheed ‘Candy Flip’ Pét Nat Rosé 2018 (Yarra Valley, Australia) Blend of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Mourvedre. $33
La Vignereuse Marine Leys Mayga Watt Pét-Nat Rosé 2018 (Gaillac, France) 100% Gamay. $31
Julien Braud La Bulle de l’Ouest Pétillant Brut (Loire, France) 100% Melon de Bourgogne. $22
Channing Daughters Bianco Pétillant Naturel 2018 (Long Island, NY) 45% Pinot Grigio 45% Sauvignon Blanc 10% Tocai Friulano. $28