Father, forgive me. I am about to blaspheme.
I’m sick of pét nat. OK, this is not the party line for a natural wine fan. But I’m bored of every-winemaker-on-the-planet ubiquity, I’ve had it with all-over-the-floor spurters and flat-as-a-pancake whimpers where the winemaker clearly chickened out. I’m fed up with anaemic, squeaky clean fizz where someone applied the trendy label but didn’t get the memo, I’m done with half-fermented juice and could-be-from-anywhere flavours. Please, pour me a crémant, a Cava, a col fondo, a grower Champagne. Anything but another damned pét-nat.
OK, back up. How did we get here?
Pour me a crémant, a Cava, a col fondo, a Grower Champagne. Anything but another damned pét nat
Way back in the early 1990s, a pioneering natural winemaker by the name of Christian Chaussard coined the term pétillant naturel. Legend has it that a bottle of his Vouvray accidentally refermented, and Chaussard pronounced it to be good. He decided to make A Thing out of it, proving that there are no mistakes in wine, just marketing opportunities waiting to happen.
A decade later, around 2001, I holidayed in the mountains near Perpignan. Two local bubblies quenched our thirsts and uplifted our souls: something called Blanquette de Limoux, which tasted normal, and something called Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale which did not. The ancestrale version was cloudy, sweet and lightly sparkling, and reminded me of bruised apples.
Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale, it transpires, was created not by hipsters but by 16th century Benedictine monks. Amen to that. Conceptually, it is the original pétillant naturel, born of a single fermentation which starts in a barrel (or less romantically, a tank) and finishes in the bottle – thereby trapping the remaining CO2 and creating gentle pétillance. Its south-west cousin méthode Gaillacoise pulls a similar trick.
Both of these ancient traditions have specific requirements enshrined into their appellations: they’re routed in a place, tied to a specific grape variety (Mauzac, in both cases) and put up for sale without being disgorged. In other words, the yeasty mush that remains in the bottle is part of the fun.
Chaussard’s accidental rediscovery of the méthode ancestrale spread like wildfire throughout the Loire. By the dawn of the 21st century, everyone was at it, including heavy hitters such as Thierry Puzelat, Domaine Mosse and Hervé Villemade. Fast forward another decade and the idea had spread far outside France, gaining traction in the more fashionable fleshpots of New York and London. Who was responsible for the gauche abbreviation to pét-nat is, thus far, an unsolved mystery.
I’m not sure when the first pét nat crossed my consciousness. Chances are it was 2012, at Raw Fair London. Tasting something called Ze Bulle Zero Pointe Blanc from Château Tour Grise, I fell in love with the pure fruit, light bubbles and low alcohol. It was joyful, enlivening and different.
Just five short years later, the sparkle started to go flat. Suddenly, everyone was making something called a pét-nat, from France to Slovakia to California and all points in between. But thanks to the total lack of legal definition, some winemakers played fast and loose with the term.
To disgorge or not has become a loaded question. Many of the world’s pre-eminent pét-natists tell me they’d rather disgorge and be able to sleep at night, than send out bottles that might accidentally double as high-pressure jets. Martin Arndorfer, of top Austrian pét nat duo Fuchs und Hase, told me “It shouldn’t be a surprise package – anyone should be able to open a pét nat without wondering what they’re in for”. He also mentioned the sediment issue: assuming you don’t shake the bottle, the first glass will look and taste quite different to the last as it contains less of the yeasty deposit. That last glass could be like drinking a cement dust milkshake.
All valid points, but to me a disgorged pét nat is a bit like a grilled oyster or pasteurised mayonnaise. De-risked, cleansed, smartened up, it’s a bit safe and boring. I prefer my pét nats murky, unruly and defiant. Gently upturning them to evenly distribute the sediment gives me the same ritualistic pleasure as wielding a corkscrew or grinding my own coffee beans.
Disgorged pét nats with perfect, even suspicious clarity seem to be in the ascendant though. To me, they bear little relationship to the original méthode ancestrale or its alternative moniker méthode rurale. Surely something rural should be at least a little unkempt? As to the ancestrale part, Champagne grower-producer Melanie Tarlant asked me this rhetorical question – “ancestrale means ancestor. But the ancestor of who exactly?”
Her point is that pét nat is a concept divorced from tradition. It’s a technique, a formula, a global marketing concept. “The smell reminds me of eating raw pancake batter when I was a kid” she adds. “They always have fermentation aromas, because they are released so young”.
Tarlant may be based in one of France’s more conservative wine regions, but she’s also strongly embedded in the natural wine community. “I like the free and punk spirit” she says of pét-nat. But she also admits that she’s become bored of drinking them, due to their sameness.
Arndorfer and his partner in pétillance Alwin Jurtschitsch feel differently. They formed Fuchs und Hase as a vehicle to create “naturally made sparkling wines from the Kamptal”. It was, as they say “a blank sheet” – a project that freed them from the more classical focus of their respective family wineries.
They strongly believe that pét nats can express origin, and they’ve tweaked their winemaking accordingly: a bit of skin contact for more character, longer ageing and later release to develop more complexity. I can’t fault their passion or the results, which are outstanding – even if I disagree with the disgorging policy. But most pét nat producers don’t have Fuchs und Hase’s serious intent. They’re just making easygoing fizz – “kill juice”, as a friend of mine terms it.
The more I glug these random hipster bubbles from Portugal, Australia, Poland or Germany, the more it feels like a bandwagon that’s about to destabilise as all and sundry climb aboard. As Tarlant says “when I hear the word pét nat, it’s like I used to hear ‘barrique’ in the 1980s or 1990s”.
Worse still, the pét nat maelstrom tends to gloss over the truly ancestral styles that preceded it. Prosecco col fondo is the pre-technology version of Veneto’s industrialised cash cow, with its own delicate yeasty signature. The whole of Emilia-Romagna is basically pét nat central, but with provenance. From the stinky Malvasia di Candia Aromatica frizzantes of Colli Piacentini to proper artisanal Lambrusco (it does exist), the region is one big frothing heaven.
These Italian gems are metodo ancestrale to the core, just don’t call them pét nats. They are quirky characters with an authentic story – just like Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale or a Mauzac Méthode Gaillacoise.
I’m persisting with the anti-pét nat stance, but I’ll happily appease the natural wine gods by opening a cloudy col fondo from Costadilà or a lip-smacking frizzante from Massimiliano Croci. Sure, we can share the bottle, but I want the last glass.