Long before someone other than Dom Pérignon thought of putting bubbles in Champagne and the whole méthode traditionelle was invented, bottle fermented wines were commercialised using the Ancestral Method (aka Rural Method). The plan is that you bottle the wine before the end of the first fermentation and plug it (these days more often than not with a crown cap, as with beer bottles). As the fermentation winds down you are left with a fizzy wine, though not usually as sparkling as a Champagne. According to Tom Stevenson (Champagne & Sparkling Wine Guide 2015) Champagne was all made this way until the late 18th or early 19th Century.
This method, simple as it sounds, has a couple of drawbacks. First, the sediment which is ejected from a traditional method sparkler at disgorgement will remain in the bottle with the Ancestral/Rural Method. The second potential problem facing the producer is the uncertain nature of fermentations. If the fermentation still has a way to go, you get too much pressure in the bottle, leading to a cellar of exploding glass. But bottle too late and you get a still wine, flat in all respects. That’s without thinking about levels of alcohol and sweetness. So whilst this method has always been seen as a poor cousin to “proper” bottle fermentation, and led to such wines having a poor reputation in the past, you can see that to do it well takes a lot of skill and judgement.
Why then are we seeing a real renaissance in this type of wine, under the banner of Pétillant Naturel (pét-nat for short)? These wines have been around as a niche product forever. Probably the first ones I tasted came from that remote and possibly least loved region of France, Bugey, in the form of Bugey-Montagnieu and Cerdon, but they are also found in many other regions. Some traditional Ancestral Method wines are quite well known, such as Blanquette de Limoux, Clairette de Die, and Lambrusco (which has been made by this method, often with a cork tied down with string, although most of the commercial stuff we see outside Italy is made in a vat).
The modern pét-nat seems to have taken off in the Loire region of France where there was already a good base of young naturalistes making low intervention wines. From here it has lept to the south of France, to Italy and lately to Eastern France (Jura and Burgundy – sadly a batch of pét-nat being made last year by one good Burgundy producer I know failed, showing how difficult this method can be to get just right).
In her book “Natural Wine” Isabelle Legeron calls pétillants naturels the most exciting thing to come out of the natural wine scene. They certainly provide a new strand of wine to explore. They are of their nature much simpler than Champagne or other traditional bottle-fermented sparklers, and are usually less fizzy (though more so than other merely spritzy wines like Vinho-Verde, Txacoli, or Wiener Gemischter Satz). They provide a really refreshing summer aperitif and the pink and red versions can go really well with cold lunches, so now’s the perfect time to seek them out. They are best drunk young in most cases, some producers suggesting they are best within six months or so of bottling, but my own research has proved that they can last a year or longer in many cases.
How to drink them, cloudy or clear, is the main dilemma? If you want a clean and fresh taste then stand the bottle up in the fridge and allow the yeast deposit to settle to the bottom, pouring slowly and carefully. Some producers will have used a light filtration anyway in order to get rid of some of the sediment. But some people like to drink them cloudy, seeing that as a “natural” state for the wine. The yeast sediment adds a richness of flavour, and although you’ll find bits, it’s a long way from undecanted Port. However you drink them, they are usually cheap enough to let you do so every day in the summer months if you so choose, no bad thing!
The wines listed below are just a small selection of those worth a look at. They show the diversity of what’s out there and they come in all colours. If you find one in a wine shop just try it, though you might ask the merchant how long it’s been on the shelf. Even if they are not totally averse to a little bottle age, heat and light are not their friends.
It’s worth being aware that these wines are often made for fun by young winemakers. They may not make a pét-nat every year, and if they do, they will quite likely give it a different name (a play on words is almost obligatory). They will also be far more likely to have hand sold it to a Parisian wine bar than your local merchant, but don’t give up hope completely.
Moussamousettes – Agnès and Réné Mosse (Loire): Often a staple at Terroirs in London, from the Caves de Pyrene stable. This rosé is the pét-nat I’ve drunk the most, and is also one of the easiest to find…usually.
Touraine Rosé – François Chidaine (Loire): You’ll need to visit Chidaine’s “L’Insolite” shop in Montlouis for this…but then you need to visit Chidaine’s…It comes in with a variety of coloured labels, a fun party wine.
Plouss’ Mousse – Domaine Hughes-Beguet (Jura): This is a little 10.5% alc Ploussard gem but you’ll need to pester The Wine Society to include it in their H-B offering, unless you make the five minute drive from Arbois to Patrice’s cellar door in Mesnay.
Jura is a happy hunting ground for these wines, and others to seek out include Emilie Porteret’s Red Bulle (Domaine des Bodines), and Philippe Bornard’s off-dry selections (including a Savagnin which even Wink Lorch admits to enjoying (Jura Wine, 2014, p203)).
[Wink Lorch’s Jura Wine is the essential guide for discovering the young growers of the Jura region. As you can see with Philippe Bornard’s pét-nats in this picture by Mick Rock, they come in magnums too!]
Glou-Bulles – La Ferme des Sept Lunes (Rhone): One to seek out on the Parisian wine bar circuit, a Gamay pink, maybe see whether Camille has any (La Buvette de Camille).
On Pète la Soif – Jean-Paul Thévenet (Fleurie): This comes with a proper mushroom cork/wire but J-P describes it as a “vin mousseux aromatique de qualité” and it weighs in at just 7.5% alc. Occasionally available from Roberson in London.
Malvasia – Camillo Donati (Emilia-Romagna): Skin contact galore. Caves de Pyrene may also have their Trebbiano sparkler and Lambrusco.
Groll’O – Olivier Cousin (Loire): We drank this a few days ago, which prompted this post. A frothy, fruity, bone dry red with a lightness which makes it a perfect chiller.
Moscato d’Asti – Vittorio Bera (Piemonte): A traditional Moscato which unusually fits into this category, and anyway, it’s damned good.
Other producers to look for include Thierry Puzelat, Frantz Saumon and Pierre Breton (Loire), and Raphael Bartucci (Bugey, where the tradition still lingers).
In Arbois, Les Jardins St-Vincent (49 Grand Rue) is a shop offering a good selection of smaller growers, and they may have a selection of Pétillants Naturels “in season”, including some from other French regions. The owner, Stéphane Planche, was a long time sommelier at Jean-Paul Jeunet and knows the producers intimately. The Bistrot des Claquets (Place de Faramand) offers very simple food and an equally good selection of organic and biodynamic wines. They also often have a selection of the local péts, but they too sell out swiftly. In theory they have a selection of wines for off-sales, but when stocks are low they try to keep them for the diners.