A beer-like crown cap on a bottle of sparkling wine? A hazy bubbly with sediment at the bottom? A higher flavor profile with lower alcohol content? Welcome to the charming world of pétillant naturel — aka “naturally sparkling” or pét-nat — a winemaking style which is all about Old World technique. It’s not called methode ancestrale for nothing.
Sorry to burst the legendary bubble, but 17th- century monk Dom Perignon did not discover the beauty of capturing carbon dioxide bubbles into wine. The rustic method of creating pétillant naturel existed long before, but pét-nats have been gaining popularity in recent years for their casual nature and easy drinkability.
So how are they different? In Champagne’s traditional method, fermented still wine is bottled with some yeast and sugar for a bubble-producing second fermentation. Pét-nats, in contrast, are bottled before fermentation is completed. After pressing the grapes gently, the winemaker halts the fermentation process midway by chilling the wine, adding some yeast, bottling, and crown-capping it, then letting the fermentation finish inside the bottle. The trapped CO2 forms fizzy bubbles, while the remaining sediment adds a unique, slightly “funky” flavor. Alcohol content is also slightly lower (about 8% to 10%) than other sparkling wines.
Bridgehampton’s Channing Daughters is the leading producer of pét-nats on the East End, having utilized the method for all its sparkling wines for the past 10 years. The winery has seen a growing interest and increased knowledge about such wines. “It’s almost like in the late ’90s when people started to ‘rediscover’ rosé. Now they are rediscovering this ‘forgotten’ or at least ‘less common’ practice and production style of sparkling wine,” says Anthony Persico, who runs the tasting room.
Channing Daughters currently has seven pét-nat varieties (four whites, two pinks and one red), and has eight produced for the 2019 vintage (gewürztraminer, tocai friulano, the white blends bianco, and sylvanus, the red blend Rosso, Rosato merlot, Rosato cabernet sauvignon, and Rosato merlot/lagrein). “I would argue that pét-nats are more flavorful than many proseccos and champagnes, and the crown cap keeps them casual,” says Persico. (In the olden days, winemakers would tie the corks down to the bottles lest they pop out as fermentation created heat and carbon dioxide.) The sweet, bubbly aroma might also belie their dryness. “What you smell will influence how you perceive the taste, like the strawberry profile in our merlot rosé,” he adds.
And while any type of wine creation is an exercise in craft, pét-nats require even more exactitude of skill, since finishing fermentation inside the bottle is a bit less controlled. “One signature of Christopher Tracy’s reputation as a winemaker, if you will, is that he’s
a blender. A risk-taker,” says Persico. “Channing Daughters’ wide variety of grapes encourages blending. It’s like having a white canvas, and his art will be dependent on what mother nature provides him with each season.”
Channing Daughters features a variety of blended pét-nats, all done in the Old World style of combining multiple grapes for co-fermentation, rather than fermenting them separately and blending them afterward. “The result, is a more complex tasting field wine,” says Persico.
Unlike Champagne, which removes the yeast sediment by riddling it into the bottle’s neck then disgorging (or ejecting) it, pét-nats leave it in. This gives the style its authenticity, but for drinkers with an aversion to cloudiness, there is a simple solution: chill the bottle upright in an ice bucket for about half an hour, which will cause the sediment to settle on the bottom for a much clearer pour.
Karen O’Brien, who runs the NYC-based shopping tour company style room but also has a home near Channing Daughters, has been a member of their wine club for years. “It’s been fun serving pét-nats on my tours to clients because the bouquet and taste is so universally liked and the lower alcohol content is a bit more suitable for daytime,” she says. “But honestly, I just love the taste! And clients do always comment on the fashionable crown closure.”
Across the bay on the North Fork, Sparkling Pointe might be known for its sparkling wines, but Jamesport Vineyards is the only vineyard in the region making pét-nats this season. it will be rolling out a riesling and a syrah rosé this year, with about 100 cases of each. “This was a really good year for fruit, and I noticed our pét-nats had a bit of extra pop,” says winemaker Dean Babiar.
Another reason for the pét-nat boom is its unpretentious nature. Champagne and other sparkling wines are often considered more “precious,” especially in America, where their corks are popped on special occasions. Pét-nats, in contrast, are meant to be drunk whenever … and wherever. “They’re perfect with meals, and their lower alcohol content make them fresh on the beach or nice for lunch,” notes Babiar, noting how Jamesport Vineyards often serves them up with their own brick-oven pizzas. Babiar recalls working in Bordeaux, France, where he’d grab some oysters and a bottle of methode ancestrale wine for lunch.
Speaking to their casualness, the crown-capped pét-nats might even entice the growing number of craft beer drinkers who might not have embraced sparkling wine at all. “Pét-nats are more of a fun, farmhouse thing. You drink it quick and don’t take it too seriously.”
Pét-nats can be created from virtually any type of grape, but winemakers will base each season’s type on the respective harvest if they opt to produce them at all. “Since the grapes are lightly pressed and go into the bottle unfiltered, the skins need to be spotless,” says Babiar, who says he didn’t make any pét-nats last year due to the smaller crop yield. “And this year, we were going to do an albariño but switched it up to a syrah rose,” says Babiar. All Jamesport Vineyards pét-nats are sulfite free.
No matter where they’re tasted and purchased, wineries note that patrons are curious, open-minded, and eager to learn more. Channing Daughters offers extensive pét-nat explanation on its website, while Jamesport Vineyards uses the bottles’ labels to drive the point home. Large graphic type flaunts words like HERITAGE, BUZZY, CRAFTED, SEDIMENT, FERMENTED, LIVELY, ANCESTRAL, YEAST, AUTHENTIC, and more, lest there be any confusion.
And while pét-nats can be stored for a couple of years, the idea is to drink them younger. So enjoy their fresh taste, just don’t forget the bottle opener!