Oldest Form of Bubbly Is on the Rise

Pétillant-naturel—pét-nat for short—is both a sexy debutante in today's wine world and a form of sparkling wine that predates Champagne by centuries.

Photo courtesy of William Heritage Winery

It’s called pétillant naturel (meaning naturally sparkling), and it’s a sexy debutante in the wine world. Except that pét-nat, as it’s called, is centuries older than the process that produces Champagne.

Pét-nat is in vogue for a few reasons. One is that it’s part of the natural-wine movement, which is based on making wine with a minimum of chemical and technological interventions, often from organic grapes. Another is that pét-nat tends to be about 2 percent lower in alcohol than traditional sparkling wines. A third is that it has the caché of being a niche product with its own distinctive qualities, varying with the grapes used.

In the Champagne method, wine that has finished its initial fermentation in tanks, becoming a still wine, is filtered, siphoned into bottles, and dosed with fresh yeast and sugar that triggers a new round of fermentation, producing CO2 bubbles.

In pét-nat, wine still undergoing initial fermentation in tanks is bottled; the remaining yeast continues to carbonate the wine. Filtering is optional.

Sean Comninos, winemaker at William Heritage Winery in Gloucester County, New Jersey’s only producer of pét-nat, says younger drinkers don’t mind the hazy look of an unfiltered pét-nat and are more open to what he calls the “fun, funky and playful” characteristics of the style.

Morristown native and one-time punk rocker Brendan Tracey now makes wine in the Loire Valley region of France. Of his 2015 Outsider Brut Rosé, a pét-nat made from 100 percent chenin blanc grapes, he says, “the yeast flavor comes out as toasted bread. You don’t get flavors like that in the Champagne method.”

In Jersey City, Rowen McDermott, co-owner of Frankie Wine Bar, pairs barbecued shrimp with a New Zealand pét-nat made from sauvignon blanc grapes. “The spicy, smoky shrimp go great with sparkling wine,” he says.

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