Warmer days are here, and for most of us that means that around 5 p.m. our ability to work is severely compromised as visions of a glass of refreshing sparkling wine claim the imagination. Maybe some of us prefer to splurge on the best grower champagnes out there, but even so, there is always a time and a place for the lovely, simple, low-alcohol wine made in the pétillant-naturel (naturally sparkling) style — known affectionately as “pét-nat.”
As the name indicates, pét-nats are a French thing, which isn’t to say that they come exclusively from France, because naturally sparkling wine can be made anywhere. But this wine has been enjoying a revival over the last decade or so in certain parts of France, especially in the Loire Valley. Its popularity stems from the robust natural-wine culture that’s developed as producers all over the world have turned away from overly manipulated wines and shifted to pre-technological, ancestral methods.
Pét-nat is one of those methods. The wine is made sparkling simply by bottling a wine and capping it during fermentation — using a crown cap, like most beer — as opposed to Méthode Champenoise, in which bubbles occur through a lengthy process of continuously rotating bottles. The Champagne method produces lovely stuff, but it’s laborious and requires machinery and extra human labor (the job of a riddler is to turn bottles, one by one, to prevent the sediment from caking). Plus, champagne is often dosed with sugar water after disgorgement — hello, hangover — and it is pricey. Pét-nats are neither dosed with sugar nor expensive; they usually range from $18 to $27.
Most prosecco is made through a method called Charmat, in which the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in steel vats and is then bottled under pressure. Many cheap sparkling wines are made by injecting bubbles into flat wine, which results in large, cola-like bubbles that burst harshly in your mouth, whereas wines made in the Champagne style have subtler, more elegant bubbles.
Now, pét-nats aren’t exactly elegant. They are usually unfiltered and unfined — meaning cloudy, earthy juice — and their bubbles are hardly noticeable; rather, they are almost effervescent, alive. Plus, there’s no cork popping for that celebratory effect. But in situations involving porches or patios, grilling, pizza, day drinking, late-night gossip, lowbrow novels, highbrow magazines or snacky foods such as chicken wings, frog’s legs, popcorn or oysters, a pét-nat will be the ultimate light, refreshing quaff.
There are a lot of French pét-nats on the market, but in recent years domestic winemakers have been trying their hand at making pét-nat — with some very good results.
Brianne Day started making wine in the Willamette Valley in 2012, after working harvest at wineries in Argentina and Burgundy. She supported her “winemaking habit” by waiting tables at Gabriel Rucker’s bistro Little Bird, until one day a generous customer noticed her grape-cluster tattoo and offered to become an investor. She makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under the name Day Wines, and now her first pét-nat, using Malvasia, an Italian varietal that is usually made in a slightly sweet style. Day harvested early, going for a higher-acid style of wine. She added no yeasts, and rather than adding sulfur, she stabilized the pressed grapes by exposing the unfermented juice to oxygen — by literally splashing the liquid around with her hands. She added just a touch of sugar before bottling. The wine, called Mamacita, hits you with white flowers on the nose. It is soft, yeasty and pleasant to drink, with notes of stone fruits and ripe lemons, and it is cloudy enough to make it seem like drinking a barrel sample.
Only 50 cases will hit the market of a new pét-nat made by young winemaker Jonathan Oakes of Leonard Oakes Winery in upstate New York. Just this year, Oakes became motivated to experiment with Old World-style ancestral winemaking. His pét-nat, made with his estate Riesling ($15), was fermented for just eight days and bottled about a month after harvesting. It’s fresh and quenching to the point where it’s actually more like a wine spritzer, or a cider, than a wine.
And in the unlikely wine region of Maine, Brian Smith of Oyster River produces natural cider and wine (albeit using grapes from the Finger Lakes region of New York). This year he has a dry, bright pét-nat called Morphos, made from a 50/50 blend of cold-hardy hybrid grapes, Cayuga and Seyval Blanc ($19). You can find it by the glass at Brooklyn’s new natural-wine bar, June.
For some of the best examples of French pét-nat, seek out these bottles:
- Pow Blop Wizz ($27): A blend of Grolleau and Cabernet Franc — two red varieties indigenous to the Loire — by Olivier Lemasson, this is a true warm-weather sparkler. It’s a beautiful pink color and just the tiniest bit fruit-forward, with a satisfying touch of residual sugar.
- Les Capriades ($25): Loire Valley winemaker Pascal Potaire is particularly known for his pét-nats. He’s got a Chardonnay that’s nice and round, good alongside fried foods, and a rosé made of Cabernet Franc, Grolleau, Côt – the local name for Malbec — and Pineau d’Aunis, called pièges à Filles (“girl-trapper”) that’s off-dry, but clean and snappy.
- Hirotake Ooka ($22): This Japanese vintner makes unfiltered, unsulfured wines in a cellar carved out of the side of a mountain in the northern Rhone; his pét-nat Muscat de Hambourg is an all-around winner – lush, soft and completely dry.
- And lest you think they only do natural sparklers in France, there’s a pét-nat-style prosecco from the Veneto, from a winery called Costadila, made primarily with the Glera grape. Have it with boquerones and best friends.