By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon was not the first monk in France to discover the magic between wine fermentation and carbon dioxide to create the bubbles in a bottle that led to champagne.
Although he did pioneer a number of important winemaking techniques, including the use of cork to contain wines under pressure, other winemakers throughout France during the 1600’s had already invented a different method of capturing the sparkle in wines known as Pétillant Naturel.
Pétillant Naturel, or Pét Nat for short, means natural sparkling in French. It differs from the méthode champenoise way of making sparkling wine in that no secondary fermentation is required. In the Pét Nat method, known as méthode ancestrale, grapes are picked, crushed and then bottled while the wine is undergoing its primary fermentation. The process is completed in the bottle without the addition of yeast or sugars.
The result is a fresh, spritzy, low-alcohol wine, full of bright, natural fruit flavors and sometimes a bit hazy in appearance, as the wines typically do not undergo clarification, so dead yeast cells may still be present in the finished bottle.
“It’s an artisanal style of winemaking,” explains sommelier Christopher Sawyer. “It’s not primitive; it’s just the most pure version of making sparkling wine.”
Sawyer is well versed with winemaking styles. He is internationally known for his 20 years as a private sommelier, as well as for his experience as a wine journalist, wine judge, consultant and public speaker. Sawyer has traveled the world following trends in wine and participating as a judge in international wine competitions.
One trend he is particularly focused on right now is Pét Nat wine – and he’s not alone.
“They’re fun,” he exclaims. “Young, spirited, sometimes not perfect because they can look a little different … but thanks to the recent success of orange wines and the distinctive characteristics of the grape varieties being used, as well as the vineyards where they are grown, sommeliers and other people who know wines say ‘that’s an interesting wine, let me taste it.’”
Sawyer notes that although Pét Nat bubbles are not as “powerful or heady” as those in champagne, the style of winemaking is as clean as it can get, with little to no manipulation of the original fruit.
“One of the main concerns for winemakers is the purity of the fruit, the varietals and the clones they’re working with,” attests Sawyer. “A Pét Nat wine is a good way of showcasing the fruit of your winery with minimal intervention, so the finished flavors are reflective of (both) the vintage and the special vineyard blocks they are working with, instead of making sparkling wines that are mainly blends and typically topped off with younger wines if they are non-vintage bruts.”
Sawyer maintains that one of the primary advantages of Pét Nat wines is how quickly they are ready to be uncapped and enjoyed.
“Champagne (and other sparkling wine) is an investment for winemakers,” he affirms. “With méthode champenoise, you have to be patient and wait for two years for the wine, sugar and yeast to bond together in the bottle.
“On the other hand, Pét Nat will typically be ready to release the following spring or early summer. For these reasons, you have a spirited, young wine to market the following year. So, instead of waiting for something to be great, it’s already young, vibrant and showy right out of the gate.”
Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of Pét Nat wines is their ability to complement a wide variety of fresh food, particularly in an era where both are much valued.
“Knowing about wine is one thing; the real point is wine and food pairing,” Sawyer opines. “The cookie cutter land of flavors, we’ve gotten away from that in the last two decades. We grow our own herbs, veggies and fruit trees; we like going to farmers markets, instead of relying on grocery stores, and sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming practices are now en vogue in the wine industry. Basically, we’ve gotten to a level where pure wines can make a real impact.”
“Pét Nat comes out in the spring,” he continues. “That’s when we get into the green factor that goes with freshness. That’s what this young, spritzy style of wine is all about – to go with everything from fresh oysters, split pea soup and fresh salads with spring flower petals, to grilled mushrooms, fish, chicken or pork with vibrant sauces … You’re not looking into the future with these wines. You’re looking into the here and now.”
Christopher Sawyer will be sharing more of his enthusiasm and perspectives on Pét Nat wines at the upcoming 2017 WIN Expo Trade Show and Conference taking place at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, CA on November 30, in a session called “Pét Nat: Make Your Winery POP!”
Faith Armstrong, winemaker and owner of Onward Wines, and Jen Pelka, owner of The Riddler and the Principal and Founder of Magnum PR, will join Sawyer, who will be moderating the session.
For more information and registration, go to http://wineindustryexpo.com.