Somm' Fizz: The Rise of Pétillant Naturel

By Pascaline Lepeltier

This last October I was looking at the green and lush hillside of a small valley, ending a two-week wine trip in Australia by tasting with James Erskine of Jauma. Based in the Adelaide Hills, he's known for low-intervention winemaking, his top selections coming from old vines in McLaren Vale. As we were talking about how to make complex yet highly drinkable wines, he rushed back to the winery and returned proudly with his "new project, not finished yet," popping the crown cap off his pét-nat from old-vine chenin. Disgorged á la minute, it was slightly fizzy and bitter, with a hint of residual sugar—perfectly chenin blanc and absolutely delicious. I could not believe what I was drinking. Australia was, at least in my imagination, the virgin land of pétillants naturels!

I had fallen in love with pét-nat at first sight, or taste, when I was still learning my basic wine skills in the Loire Valley in 2005. It was during harvest, at Domaine des Griottes (one of the most hard-core natural wine producers in Anjou at that time), a chenin-chardonnay variation called Moussaillon—a perfect harvest wine, aperitif wine, end-of-the-day wine, rustic yet absolutely balanced. Every bottle was slightly different from the others; as I learned at the time, this is because of the method used to make pét-nat, a very "ancestral" way but not an easy one. By using the natural yeasts and sugars from a still-fermenting must bottled before the end of the alcoholic fermentation, CO2 gets trapped under its bidule (the crown cap), but the process does not produce an exact match among bottles of the same cuvée (which is the opposite of what the traditional method can accomplish).

The winemaker needs to be very careful—with the cleanliness of the grapes, the natural conditions of fermentation and the amount of time the wine spends on the lees. The process fascinated me…and the wines were addictive. I was hooked, drinking pét-nats instead of more traditional bubbles because they were lower in alcohol, softer in bubbles and more fragrant and aromatic, as the grapes used to produce them have to be riper than the ones typically used for sparkling wines. And the Loire is heaven for it. People like the late Christian Chaussard and other members of the natural wine movement brought pét-nat back to life in the late 1990s, making it from a range of varieties, whether chenin, gamay, grolleau or pineau d'aunis, with more or less success. What all of them shared was a certain innocence, as well as a refreshing exaltation. Not overly expensive to produce, the wines were, and still are, a fantastic means of expression for "younger" producers, as you can use not very old vines or make it when the vintage is not the greatest. Think how the style of Vouvray varies depending on the quality of the vintage, as in when sparkling wines are produced instead of age-focused dry or off-dry still wines. Great pét-nat can be made in a not-so-great vintage, as long as the producer pays attention to every detail. Pét-nat is a sommelier's dream if you are looking to pair aromatic yet subtle flavors, and nuanced textures. Most rosé versions, especially those made with grapes from the Loire—grolleau, pineau d'aunis, cabernet franc, gamay—allow great pairings with fish and shellfish dishes with red berries. Try, for example, Les Capriades' Piege à Filles with oysters and pomegranate mignonette. If you pick a grenache-based pét-nat, with a hint of residual sugar, you easily can match roasted lamb or pork, especially if spiced.

James Erskine makes a delicious pét-nat from old-vine chenin at Jauma in the Adelaide Hills.

Originally an easy-to-gulp wine, pét-nat is made in a wide range of styles today. There are extremely traditional expressions, like the Mauzac from Florent Plageoles in Gaillac, with its bittersweet green-apple tannins paying tribute to an ancestral technique. Or crazy foamy interpretations like the version from Andrea Calek in Ardèche. But today the most abouti examples of pét-nat you can find come from Montlouis-sur-Loire. In a change initiated by a group of dedicated growers, the AOP legislation for Montlouis-sur-Loire added "Pétillant Originel" several years ago. It is the first pét-nat wine to be officially regulated (100 percent chenin, controlled yields, higher grape maturity, no chaptalisation, no liqueur de tirage nor d'expedition, nine months minimum of aging, etc.). Grab a bottle of Rocher des Violettes' or Domaine de la Grange Tiphaine's Nouveau Nez. Open it, feel the quality of the bubbles, the fragrance, the length—you may be blown away. Pair it with shellfish crudo slightly seasoned with yuzu and caraway, and it is even better. Of course the prices have increased a bit along with the research in quality and precision, as producers are taking more time to refine the flavors, texture and finish. But today pét-nat still remains one of the most delicious, affordable sparkling wines you can find—and a fantastic food wine.

While France continues to be the leading pro­ducer, watch out for Italy, of course, Spain and also the US—with Kevin Kelley and Salinia, for example. And hopefully, James Erskine's chenin pét-nat soon will be on this side of the Pacific.

This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, April 2014.