Making sparklers in the pétillant naturel style

Chris Tracy and Regan Meador inside Meador's Southold home. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Chris Tracy and Regan Meador inside Meador’s Southold home. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Dry rose. Steel chardonnay. Sauvignon blanc. Long Island doesn’t lack for crisp, refreshing wines to slake our thirst as the temperature rises. This spring, two Long Island wineries – Channing Daughters Winery and Southold Farm + Cellars — have added a new style of spring sipper – pet nat, short for Pétillant Naturel.

These are lightly sparkling wines made in a style that, while new to the region, is far from trendy or new. In fact, the method is as rustic and old as the wines are fun to drink. 

Fewer than a dozen local wineries produce sparkling wine at all. In a region well-suited to the style, why so few? It’s because it’s a time-consuming and expensive process.

To make sparkling wine in the well-known méthode champenoise style, as in champagne, a winery will typically harvest grapes earlier than usual to preserve natural acidity and bottle the resulting, bone-dry base wine. From there, sugar and yeast are added to the bottle to start a second fermentation. Those yeasts eat the sugar, producing alcohol and the carbon dioxide that makes the wine sparkling. After the yeasts have done their work, the lees — the dead yeast cells — are removed from the bottle, a process called disgorgement. Finally, a dose of sugar and wine may be added to sweeten the wine before the bottle is re-corked and closed with a wire cage for sale.

Depending on how long the lees are left in the bottle (they bring a nutty, toasty character) the entire process can take up to 10 years or longer. That can be tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of sitting in a warehouse, in-process rather than being sold.

Pet nat, on the other hand, is rarely disgorged and is released just months after the grapes are picked. Instead of the double-fermentation process of méthode champenoise, pet nat is made via méthode ancestral, which, as you can probably guess from the name, is a very old, traditional method that dates back centuries.

In méthode ancestral, the wine is bottled before primary fermentation — the fermentation that converts the grapes’ sugars into alcohol — is complete, capturing the carbon dioxide produced as primary fermentation finishes inside the bottle. The lees are typically left inside the bottle and the resulting wines tend to be lower in alcohol, less aggressively carbonated and sometimes even cloudy compared to méthode champenoise wines.

To learn more about pet nat and to taste Long Island’s first renditions, I sat down with Christopher Tracy, partner and winemaker at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton and Regan Meador, co-owner and winemaker at Southold Farm + Cellar.

petillant naturel

Both were quick to point out that while méthode ancestral might seem like an easier way to make wine, it’s really just a different process with its own challenges and drawbacks.

“It’s definitely a tough wine to make,” Meador said. Since every fermentation is different, it’s nearly impossible to determine the best time to bottle the still-fermenting juice. Bottle too early and the finished wine might be sweeter than you want or bottles could explode with too much carbonation. Bottle too late and the wine might not carbonate enough.

The latter could have happened to Meador in 2013, when he first tried his hand at pet nat. But because it’s a long, slow and unpredictable process, the ferment went too far. Rather than make a wine he might not be proud of, he let the fermentation run to completion and blended the wine into his Devil’s Advocate chardonnay.

Tracy had wanted to make sparkling wine for many years. “I love bubbles,” he told us as we tasted. But for the reasons already mentioned, méthode champenoise just wouldn’t work for his winery. Pet nat afforded him the opportunity to make a sparkling variety, but for a guy making three dozen wines and a line of vermouth, it was stressful — and a lot of work — to make it happen.

“The wines are so damn fun, it’s worth it,” Tracy said with a smile. He plans to expand production next year.

weather to fly

For Meador, he simply likes “the idea of a sparkling, fun wine that is perfect for the spring and summer out here.” Pet nat has been part of his plan since he planted his vineyard in 2012. It’s why he planted goldmuskateller, a floral, aromatic variety that he thinks will work well in the pet nat style.

If you’re new to pet nats, you need approach them with an open mind. If you’re expecting champagne, cava, prosecco or any other better-known style of bubbly, you may be disappointed. These are forward, drink-now wines that, as Meador said, offer a “snapshot of the vintage in the bottle.”

“They are moving targets,” Tracy told me. “They continue to ferment in the bottle.”

So, if you taste one not long after bottling, it may be fairly sweet and barely fizzy, but come back in a month or two and it will taste completely different.

“For the first few months, our wines changed every single day,” Tracy said.

After talking for a few minutes, we got to tasting their wines and the first word that comes to mind is ‘fun.’ These aren’t complex, layered wines to ponder over. Chill them down, pop them open and enjoy them with friends and a meal.

Channing Daughters’ 2014 Petillant Naturel Bianco ($26), which is made with 50 percent pinot grigio, 34 percent tocai friulano and 18 percent sauvignon blanc was the sweetest of the three wines. Frothy, slightly sweet and floral, it’s reminiscent of a cross between Prosecco and Moscato D’asti. Sadly, all 63 cases are sold out.

Made with 100 percent merlot, Channing Daughters’ 2014 Petillant Naturel Rosato ($26) is a texturally stunning wine. Drier and a bit more carbonated, that mouthfeel lends a creaminess to bright strawberry, watermelon and red cherry flavors. When something this delicious — at only 9 percent alcohol — the bottle won’t last long.

regan meador chris tracy

Meador made his Southold Farm + Cellar 2014 Weather to Fly ($22) from chardonnay grown on the old Gristina Vineyards property in Cutchogue. Unmistakably chardonnay with its apple and pear flavors, it is cloudy, full of verve and tastes so fresh that you’d swear you were munching grapes in the vineyard.

These are tiny-production wines. There’s a good chance both of Tracy’s wines will be sold out by the time this story runs, but fear not: Meador released his wine a few days ago, when he re-opened the tasting room for the season. He only made 55 cases, though, so it probably won’t last long, either.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2015 edition of The Long Island Wine Press

Lenn Thompson