Pétillants Naturels – natural sparkling wines – have seen their popularity surge worldwide because they are at the crossroads of several trends. But aside from this, they serve a genuine purpose.
A natural take on the Ancestral Method
Pét-Nats are sparkling wines, more often than not whites, sometimes rosés, rarely reds. The bubbles are produced by bottling the wine BEFORE fermentation is finished. As a reminder, fermentation is when sugar from the grape juice is turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast. Hence, fermentation continues in the bottle, producing a sparkling wine. The technique is known as the ‘ancestral method’ because it is the oldest known way of making sparkling wine; wine growers from Limoux claim ownership of the technique dating back to the 16th century or thereabouts*. It is used for Limoux Méthode Ancestrale – not to be mistaken for Blanquette de Limoux – for some Bugey wines, in the ‘Gaillac method’ and for DOCG Moscato d’Asti, for instance.
The actual term ‘Pétillants Naturels’ was coined in the Loire and has generally been ascribed to wine growers Christian Chaussard, Thierry Puzelat and Vincent Carême since the 1990s. Although the designation does not comply with strict specifications, its philosophy goes a stage further than the straightforward ancestral method. It is part of an organic or even natural approach to winemaking. The grapes reach the peak of ripeness – no sugar is added – and are often picked by hand. Similarly, no yeast is added at any stage of the production process. In order to momentarily stop fermentation before bottling, the tank is cooled, or if it is already winter time, the winery doors are opened wide! Filtering to remove sediment or any yeast is out of the question and the amount of sulphites is usually very low. Once bubbles emerge in the bottle – as spring brings warmer temperatures – there is no disgorging to remove spent yeast.
Hipsters, beer and cider drinkers, and happy people
The process produces low-alcohol wines, with an ABV of 7 to 11%, that may contain some residual sugar. Unlike mature Champagnes – aged for at least 15 months with yeast – or even Crémants (at least 12 months), Pét-Nats age for just a few weeks and therefore do not display any of the aromas of mature wine. They are very fruity with flavours of grapes and above all, do not keep. In the Loire, they have become the ultimate fresh appetiser.
Fermentation, which finishes in the bottle, is more random because it is less easy to control – growers can always revisit wines in tanks. These unfiltered wines are usually cloudy with bubbles that are often fine, but come in varying amounts – there are a lot fewer than in Champagnes. This unpredictable, exhilarating edge was bound to appeal to hipsters and screwcaps of Pét-Nats (cork is rarely used) can be heard twisting from Brooklyn to the East of London via Rome!
The prices are affordable because although skill is required to produce the wines, the method is fairly inexpensive. And even if the bubbles don’t last long, neither does the bottle! Naturally…
Written by Alain Echalier
*The traditional method, formerly known as Champagne method, involves a second fermentation in the bottle and dates back to the 18th century.