Wine Crush: What Is Pét-Nat And Why Should You Be Drinking It?
A recent search in the online shop of one of Hong Kong’s leading wine bars and retailers provided an ample selection of 10 pét-nat wines. It was just a shame that nine of them were sold out. However, this did serve to demonstrate the demand for this style of wine.
Pét-nat, or to give the wine its full name pétillant naturel, is a sparkling natural wine—literally “naturally fizzy”. Natural wines are, of course, nothing new. In fact, over the last decade interest in natural, organic and biodynamic wines has seen a rapid rise in line with consumers’ desire for fewer additives and preservatives in the things they consume in the name of “cleaner” eating and drinking.
Along with this increased penchant for natural wine, there has been a rise in the popularity of pét-nats. However, these wines have origins that go way back—reportedly to winemaking monks in the early 16th century in Limoux, France. They are made according to the oldest known process for making sparkling wine, the “méthode ancestrale”, which involves bottling wine partway through its primary fermentation so that carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle creating bubbles. Making champagne—which uses the “methode traditionnelle”—involves a second round of fermentation as well as ageing. Pét-nat therefore results in a sparkling wine that has fewer bubbles, less alcohol and a smaller price tag than champagne, yet one that can deliver heaps of character and expression of terroir, and is a more accessible option for when you want to add a bit of sparkle to an occasion.
“The great thing about pét-nats is that they are typically fresh, juicy, approachable and affordable,” says Ronald Kamiyama, Managing Partner, The Cicheti Group in Singapore, whose venues include Bar Cicheti, a speciality handmade pasta and natural wine-focused bar. “They are less intimidating and not as fancy as the “King” or Queen” of all sparkling wines, champagne.”
There’s also an unpredictable, wild element to pét-nat. Yulia Ezhikova, sommelier at Brut restaurant in Hong Kong says, “The allure of pét-nats is similar to that of disposable point-and-shoot cameras. Fun and beginner-friendly, they provide the perfect avenue for experiments of all kinds. In the same way film photographers can’t judge the success of their shots until they’re developed, winemakers bottle a wine that’s still fermenting, often clueless about what the finished product will taste like. Lovingly called, “the Russian roulette of winemaking”, pét-nats are fascinating for all the same reasons as natural wine at large—it’s winemaking gone analogue and off script; freedom and pleasure combined.”
There’s certainly a sense of ‘anything goes’ when it comes to pét-nats, as none of the rules that surround the making of other sparkling wines, such as champagne, apply, allowing winemakers to experiment, which results in a wide range of iterations.
“The current pét-nat category [includes] sparkling versions of white, skin-contact, rosé and red wines, resulting in a much more diverse range of flavour and texture combinations for consumers to try,” says Ambrose Chiang, formerly beverage and wine director at momofuku ko in New York and momofuku seiobo in Sydney, and founder of Project Ambrose, a restaurant industry consultancy. “From a producer point of view, the less-regulated category provides winemakers globally with a diverse range of grapes, fermentation and élevage time, and disgorgement-related decisions to choose from. In addition, with a lower cost of production compared with the champagne method of sparkling wine production, pét-nat has allowed younger winemakers to enter winemaking more easily with less-heavy cashflow burdens.”
“From white to orange, rosé and dark red, pét-nats come in all shades and colours, which means flavours from anything as light as flowers and lemons to as big as red fruits, spices and barnyard,” adds Ezhikova. “As a somm, I’m perpetually on a mission to expand guests’ wine horizons. Pét-nats are my weapon of choice for sneaking in unusual grape varieties that otherwise get no love. No matter how brilliant, Malvasia, Grolleau Gris or Trebbiano are a hard sell on their own; but add a fun label and bubbles, and I’m suddenly being asked if it comes in a magnum.”
Given the breadth of character within the pét-nat category, this style of wine is generally very versatile and the possibilities of a pét-nat pairing are endless. “I love pét-nat for its [ability] to express recent vintages, fruit quality and varietal character; while on any dining table, the diverse world of pét-nat performs well with almost any food,” says Chiang.
As pét-nats are made with a wide range of grapes, when it comes to origins there are almost no limits, too. They hail from across the planet, from Japan to New Zealand and Australia, and from France to Italy and Austria, though some of the best seem to come from where the style originated. Chiang recommends the traditional regions for the wine, including Savoie and the Loire Valley in France, as well as Emilia-Romagna in Italy, Burgenland in Austria and Australia’s Victoria.
Ezhikova concurs: “I would point out the birthplaces of pét-nat in France like Loire Valley, Gaillac and Savoie’s Bugey as regions of particular interest where wines of this style aren’t just a fun side project. For example, Bugey’s famous Renardat-Fâche estate, now in its eighth generation of family leadership under winemaker Élie Renardat-Fâche, produces just one sparkling wine for commercial release: its iconic Bugey-Cerdon. This delicately sweet wine made of Gamay and Poulsard hides behind a sombre black and white label and is considered one of the world’s best sparkling wines.”
“Mauzac Nature from Domaine Plageoles in Gaillac speaks quality and weight. The estate has been one of the oldest in producing this ultra-traditional style of sparkling wine,” adds Chiang.
Despite the extensive history of the style of wine, pét-nats themselves are largely not made to be kept for any length of time. “Pét-nat is best drunk within 24 months of its production,” says Chiang.
And what’s the best way to do that? “Drink them whenever and however you wish,” says Kamiyama. “They are the type of wines where no one asks about the altitude of the vineyards, the soil composition, how old are the wines, or what vintage are they? They are the type you can just pop open and enjoy.”