Why you should care
Because bubbly doesn’t always have to be so fancy.
Regan Meador is still up in the middle of the night. It’s harvest time, and while the Long Island winemaker has plenty to do at daybreak, he’s risking exhaustion to baby-sit a barrel of grape juice. Having picked some fruit early in the season, the co-owner of Southold Farm & Cellar is determined to catch his batch at just the right level of fermentation to bottle it and make a fruity, funky and yeasty type of sparkling wine that’s bubbling up around the world. “You only have a finite window in which to bottle these wines,” Meador explains.
In recent years, a growing number of winemakers from as far afield as South Africa, Georgia, Chile, Japan and Slovenia have begun pouring their nectar into a little-used but centuries-old méthode ancestrale to make naturally sparkling wine — or, as fancy folks like to call it, pétillant naturel (we prefer its newer moniker, pét-nat). The wine undergoes a natural fermentation process that makes it less fizzy and cheaper than Champagne or other sparkling wines. And thanks to the rising demand for all things natural, French grower Thierry Puzelat says, “It seems like everyone’s making it.”
While there’s no official pét-nat association that tracks industry sales, experts note that sales are spiking upward for a wine category that few had even heard of a decade ago. Talitha Whidbee, of Brooklyn’s Vine Wine shop, says she’s been bursting pét-nat caps with a weeklong celebration for the past three years. Sales now make up 30 percent of her sparkling business, up from just 15 percent last year. Such demand has prompted wineries in California and New York to follow the lead of counterparts in France, where, in Montrichard, there’s the annual Bulles au Centre, a festival dedicated solely to pét-nats that started in 2014 but has already doubled in size, organizers say, with 50 exhibitors attending this year.
Pét-nat is now a recognizable name inside wine circles, as well as in trendy Parisian and London wine bars, and experts believe it’ll continue to spread via small-scale production in local markets.
Naturally minded growers like Puzelat began quietly putting this style back on the European map a couple of decades ago, after it was nearly wiped out by the use of injected yeast and the industrialized sparkling wine process that enables winemakers to more easily control fermentation. Unlike Champagne makers, pét-nat purists forgo a secondary, in-bottle fermentation and instead bottle partway through the first fermentation without adding any foreign yeast or sugar. Their bottles sport crown caps, rather than corks and cages, reflecting the simpler, cheaper production, which is one reason growers are developing a thirst for the wine. Indeed, some experts call pét-nat a winemaker’s wine since it can be a great, short-term cash generator for smaller wineries — taking nine months to hit store shelves, in one case, compared with three years or longer for some Champagnes.
At the same time, demand among wine buyers is growing, in part, due to pét-nat’s limited availability. They tend to be produced in smaller quantities than other wines or sparkling varieties and sold directly from wineries. And unlike the bite of Champagne, pét-nats are often described as more digestible. While they’re also cloudier, some varieties have been gaining attention of late: Biodynamic winemaker Monty Waldin, along with Albury Vineyard’s Nick Wenman, made the U.K.’s very first pét-nat this past year with a small but hugely successful experiment of 600 bottles that got listed by the famed Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, considered one of Britain’s finest luxury restaurants, near Oxford. Other varieties are helping the drink gain market share in parts of France outside the Champagne region — namely the Loire, the Jura and in the south — as well as Germany, Austria, northern Italy and, more slowly, eastern Europe.
Since pét-nats are made naturally without any additives, entrusting the grapes to their natural fermentation means the process is “a little bit dangerous,” says Sonoma State University wine and management professor Liz Thach, and specialists could end up losing their grape juice. In fact, Thach adds, plenty of winemakers have made pét-nat accidentally, by misjudging the progress of that fermentation. Meanwhile, makers of traditional sparkling wines are unlikely to turn their backs on their bread and butter for what’s essentially still a niche wine. That’s why pét-nats aren’t being picked up by massive wine houses, and for American consumers outside New York or California that means online sites will have to suffice until a local winery gives them a try.
Even so, pét-nat is now a recognizable name inside wine circles, as well as in trendy Parisian and London wine bars, and experts believe it’ll continue to spread via small-scale production in local markets. But it requires a bit of storytelling — explaining why it’s cloudy, for example — to get the uninitiated to take their first sip. Wine enthusiasts like Puzelat, Whidbee and Waldin are happy to share such stories, and their joy for natural bubbles. Just don’t ask Meador right now; he’s tired, and his baby is about to ferment.