Saturday, July 31, 2021

Pét-Nat, Pet What? The Hipster Sparkler

You know Champagne and Prosecco, the two styles of sparkling wines. Their key distinction lies in the method of second fermentation, where the liqueur de tirage (mixture of yeast, sugar, and wine) is introduced to the still wine base to produce bubbles. Second fermentation takes place in the bottles for Champagne (known as the traditional method) and in the tank for Prosecco (known as the Charmat method). While wine connoisseurs argue which method is better, there is yet another sparkling wine that does not even go through a second fermentation.

Hipster Wine by Robson Hatsukami Morgan
on Unsplash

Hello, Pét-Nat, the hipster sparkler! 

Short for pétillant-naturel (French for "naturally sparkling"), pét-nat wines have gained in popularity in recent years with the increased demand for more natural and less manipulated wines. Fad aside, the pét-nat method (known as the ancestral method) was probably how the first sparkling wines were made. This production method dates back to the 1500's. 

It is not hard to imagine how pét-nats might come about by accident. Back in the days without modern equipment and knowledge to measure and monitor the decrease in sugar content during alcoholic fermentation, wine was sometimes bottled before the process was complete. The yeast then resumed converting sugar to alcohol while releasing carbon dioxide as a byproduct in the bottle. So when the bottle was popped, there was a slight effervescence in the wine from the carbonation.

Here are three things to know about pét-nat, and why your hipster friends may love them.

Low Alcohol

Pét-nat wines are made with a single alcoholic fermentation process that starts outside and continues inside the bottle. Champagne and Prosecco, on the other hand, start with still wine as a base that is layered on with the alcohol from the second fermentation.

As a result, most pét-nat wines run in the range of 10-12% ABV, relatively lower compared to the 12-12.5% ABV found in a Champagne or a Prosecco.

A Tad Fizzy

Pét-nat wines rely solely on whatever is left of the primary fermentation in the bottle for carbonation. Without the liqueur de tirage to fuel more yeasty activity, pét-nats will not achieve the level of effervescence that a Champagne or a Prosecco produces. However, if you enjoy wine with just a little fizz, pét-nats will deliver on that.

A Tad Fizzy by Giovanna Gomes on Unsplash

For the physicists among us who can relate to bars as the units of measure for pressure, pét-nats generally come up to about 2.5-3 bars. That is somewhere between semi-sparkling and a less sparkling wine. In comparison, Champagnes and Proseccos range between 5.5-6 bars.

Hipster Rustic

While Champagne and Prosecco winemaking can be highly involved to achieve a certain finesse and/or a consistent house style, the making of pét-nats requires a light hand. Some pét-nat makers may be more precise than others at achieving the right level of sugar content prior to bottling, even if it is just to prevent bottle explosion in the cellar. But generally, pét-nats are described as unpredictable and less tamed. 

Crown corks by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

Then there is the question of disgorgement that is practiced by Champagne makers. Disgorgement is the process of removing the lees (dead yeasts and sediments) after bottle fermentation. Some pét-nat makers may disgorge, and others may choose not to. Pét-nats that do not go through disgorgement tend to be cloudy and funky to the nose and the palate. 

But nothing screams hipster rustic more than an unpredictable, cloudy, funky wine that is bottled and enclosed with a crown cork. 

I had the pleasure of tasting two pét-nats from Grosgrain, a Walla Walla winery. Here's what I think:

Grosgrain Pét-Nats

2020 Pétillant Naturel Sparkling Sémillon, Les Collines Vineyard, Walla Walla AVA, 11.1% alcohol

The wine is deep gold, lightly bubbly, and a little cloudy. It is definitely funky and yeasty to the nose. On the palate, it is surprisingly light, crisp, and citrus-y with a higher acidity than a still Sémillon. I would say it is somewhere between a cider and a wine. It is definitely interesting.

2020 Pétillant Naturel Sparkling Old Vine Lemberger, Kiona Vineyard, Red Mountain AVA, 12.4% alcohol

The wine is medium copper, a little frothier, and a little cloudier. The nose is pleasantly floral and fruit-forward without any yeasty funk. It continues to delight on the palate with bright fruit and high acidity. There is still the hint of a cider characteristic. It is my favorite between the two.

My Verdict: I definitely enjoyed trying the pét-nats. It will probably not replace Champagne as a celebratory special-occasion wine, but I can see pét-nats in the rotation at a summer barbecue. What do you think?