The Pet Nat Boys: Pétillant naturel wines

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

16 May 2017

It might be bigger in Australia and the States, but pétillant naturel (or pét-nat) wine is starting to have an impact over here as well. Rebecca Gibb MW examines what it could mean for East End boys and West End girls

What do wine apps, minerality, social media, urban wineries, qvevri and pétillant naturel wines have in common? In a sign of the times, these seemingly disparate terms were some of the 300 new entries in the latest incarnation of The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Since the third edition of this reference bible was published nearly 10 years previously, wine apps and social media have certainly changed the way wine information is exchanged but qvevri and pétillant naturel wines are hardly new.

Pétillant naturel wines, which have recently been abbreviated to the slightly catchier pét-nat, have been around for centuries: Limoux for example, has been producing sweet, gently sparkling Blanquette méthode ancestrale – which is not dissimilar to Asti – for 500 years, according to the local wine association; although the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine questions these dates. Less controversial is the fact that these idiosyncratic wines have been largely ignored by the majority of wine-lovers because, quite frankly, they are a little bit on the weird side.

These idiosyncratic wines have been largey ignored by wine-lovers because they are, frankly, a bit weird

From reds to whites, and everything in between, pét-nats are bottled before the alcoholic fermentation has finished, so there’s comparatively little control over the finished product versus a dry white wine made entirely in tank. The final alcohol level, residual sugar and pressure are largely in the hands of the sugar and yeast that’s inside the bottle. Of course, by bottling later in the fermentation process, you can attain a higher alcohol level and drier style; and the outside temperature can play a part in the success of a fermentation.

Tim Wildman, an English Master of Wine now living in Australia, has been making pét-nat wines since 2014 and recounts his recent experiences of this unpredictable method.

Tim Wildman MW picking Pinot Nero in South Australia
Tim Wildman MW picking Pinot Nero in South Australia

‘On the one hand it’s the easiest wine in the world to make as you’re just trying to bottle a ferment. On the other hand, it requires a certain amount of skill and experience, as it’s all about temperature, control and absolute exact timing.

‘Most pét-nats actually taste pretty unappealing while they ferment over the winter, I know mine certainly do, as the yeasts are dying and excreting toxins and all sorts of other mucky, sour, fermenty flavours dominate. Then as the in-bottle ferment dies down – coming into the spring – the funkiness decreases, and the fruitiness comes up.’

Bottled with no additional SO2, these sparkling wines rely on natural protection from oxidation and spoilage nasties, yet few UK-based retailers and sommeliers reported an increased incidence of faults in these lightly sparkling wines. That’s not the case in Australia, reports Wildman, where there’s been a huge explosion in the number of producers making pét-nat wines with varying success.

‘Many sommeliers in Australia this year are talking about 2017 being the “year of the mouse”,’ he says. ‘In other words they are seeing a lot of mousiness in pét-nats, and other low- or zero-sulphur wines, and that’s only going
to get worse with bottle age.’

A phenomenon
It cannot be a coincidence that the appearance of pét-nats on wine lists has occurred in the wake of a growing interest in more natural winemaking methods – whether it’s organic or biodynamic viticulture, or minimal intervention winemaking. Pét-nat, after all, is about as natural as sparkling wine gets.

Vinoteca’s director Charlie Young
Vinoteca’s director Charlie Young

‘These Pét-nat wines, they have not had things added,’ explains Charlie Young, director of Vinoteca. ‘Even if people were not aware of the natural wine trend, most people are happy to know that the wine has not been acidified or had SO2 added – it hasn’t been messed about with.’

That said, if the wine doesn’t taste good, no amount of eco- or health-related benefits will wash with customers.

How to sell it
In the US, the pét-nat trend took hold in Brooklyn. In the UK, this quirky sparkling wine style has found its natural home in bearded, skinny jean-wearing, wine-drinking enclaves of East London. You can also find them in Brixton and even Mayfair but try finding a pét-nat wine in North-East England and you will come away empty handed.

However, there is a village in Dorset where you’ll find pét-nats. At Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, head sommelier, Eric Zwiebel MS, has been hand-selling méthode ancestrale sparkling wines for eight years – though when questioned about pét-nats he had never come across the term.

He’s currently selling Renardat-Fache’s Cerdon Bugey – a gently sparkling sweet rosé made from a blend of Gamay and Poulsard at 7.5% alcohol. This wine’s sweetness makes it particularly suited to dessert courses, according to Zwiebel.

‘It’s a really nice pairing with trifle, summer fruit, chocolate fondant or Christmas pudding,’ he says.

But the drinking occasion doesn’t have to be reserved for after dinner, according to Alex Whyte, a Welsh-born Australian who runs London-based Tutto Wines, an importer of French and Italian artisanal wines. ‘In the Loire Valley a lot of wine producers make a pét-nat just for an aperitif,’ he says.

For this reason, you can find styles that verge on dryness and could be offered to a stuck-in-a-Prosecco-rut customer, though staff need to be trained to explain the idiosyncrasies of this winemaking method.

It has to be a hand-sell. you can’t put it by the glass because it goes flat quickly

Charlie Young

‘People can be a bit alarmed [at first], if they are used to drinking industrial prosecco,’ admits Whyte. ‘The wine can be a bit cloudy, there’s lees in the bottle and it can be barely fizzy: the structure of the bubbles – people might think the wine has been opened a long time or there is something wrong with it. I use my mum as a yardstick and she would freak out [at these wines].’

There are producers who disgorge their wines, which deals with the cloudiness issue, and can be crucial for more main-stream or high-end establishments.

‘In a really funky bar in London you have the right context for pétillant naturel wines but here, in a fine wine dining context, people would send a cloudy wine back,’ says Zwiebel.

Cloudy or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that the sparkle in these wines is not comparable to prosecco or champagne. Pétillant naturel wines are a completely different offering to charmat or traditional method fizz (and occasionally tastes more like funky cider than wine). Nonetheless, for want of a better place, pét-nat sits in the sparkling section of wine lists – unless, however, there’s a ‘natural wine’ category on the list – which is hardly commonplace.

Jean-Pierre Robinot Making pét-nats in the Loire Valley
Jean-Pierre Robinot Making pét-nats in the Loire Valley

‘I didn’t know where to position it on the list,’ Young admits. ‘I had to put it under the sparkling category. It has to be a hand-sell and your staff need to be trained. You can’t put it by the glass because it’s not that fizzy and goes flat quickly.’

If you do decide to list these natural wines by the glass, in other words, you do need to be conscious that the carbonation clock is ticking.

So why on earth do people list these wines? The words ‘fun’, ‘happy’ and ‘smiley’ are oft-repeated and, despite how seriously some members of the wine industry take this fermented beverage, there’s no getting away from the fact that drinking wine is, first and foremost, meant to be an enjoyable experience.

As Wildman points out, often people’s first impressions are that pét-nat is not a ‘winey’ wine – which is very much part of its attraction.

‘I really love doing staff training with retailers or restaurants, when the people tasting might not know much about wine,’ he says. The descriptors they reach for are very often non-wine related, such as saying that the wine reminds them of a Bellini, or a fruit smoothie or cider.

‘People also comment that they don’t even taste like they are alcoholic, which I’m at a loss to explain. I’ve got some hunches, that maybe it’s the complete lack of SO2 or additives in the wine that makes it sit in the mouth and cross the palate more like fruit juice than wine, but I don’t know for sure.’

For all the hype surrounding these fun, fresh and fruity wines, the market is still miniscule

For all the hype surrounding these fun, fresh and fruity wines, the market is still miniscule. Figures from the Limoux wine trade association, for example, show that Blanquette méthode ancestrale wines make up just 6% of all sparkling wines sold by the appellation’s producers.

And in the year to October 2016, just 4,495 bottles were exported to the UK. While that’s a 267% increase year-on-year, it’s small fry compared with the 75,000 bottles shipped to the US, while the French consumed more than half a million of them.

That said, the figures aren’t surprising: unless you are in a natural wine bar, you’re unlikely to see more than one pét-nat on a wine list. And if you do, it will rarely be offered by the glass due to its gentle effervescence disappearing faster than Usain Bolt, so it’s going to take a good salesperson or a brave customer to take the plunge and buy a whole bottle.

Ah, but when that bottle is finally finished, says Zwiebel, ‘it’s got a call-you-back, let’s-have-another-one’ appeal. Perhaps the call of pét-nats is one that you need to answer.

Wildman's picks

Jauma Pet Nat Chenin, Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale, Australia
I love its gentle, creamy foam, which James, the guy behind the wine, describes as like a ‘Coopers Pale Ale’. This tastes like summer in South Australia.
£18.23, Les Caves de Pyrene, 01483 538820

Catherine et Pierre Breton, ‘La Dilettante’ Blanc, Vouvray, Loire Valley, France
The ‘original gangster’ of pét-nat producers. Arrive jet-lagged, track down your nearest natural wine bar, drink a glass of this, and all is right with the world.
£16.50, Buon Vino, 01729 892905

Young’s picks

BK Wines Petillant Naturel 2016, Adelaide Hills, Australia
Fresh and unadulterated Chardonnay juice, which has the sweet gluggability of cloudy apple juice. All with a big fizzy smile.
£14.40, Swig, 020 8995 7060

Birichino Wines, Petulant Naturel Malvasia Bianca 2015, California, US
Aromatic Malvasia with a baked bread dimension – what’s not to love about that?
£16.15, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360

Tim Wildman, ‘Fusée à Bulles’ Pet Nat 2015, Riverland, Australia
Rhubarb juice that fizzes and crackles in the mouth. Dry as you like, with real
wake-me-up zip.
£16.50, Swig, 020 8995 7060

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