Back in January I wrote about Grower Champagne and what a phenomenon that seems to have become, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to write about what I see as a complimentary sparkling wine style ever since. There is no doubt at all that the pétnat phenomenon has grown dramatically over the past ten-to-twenty years, providing vinous adventurers with wines which perhaps may not fit within the standard hierarchy of classic quality perceptions, but which nevertheless provide real excitement, especially it seems for part of a younger wine drinking demographic.
With an increasing emphasis on stimulating labels and what is perceived as good value when compared to more traditional (method) bottle-fermented sparkling wines, pétnats have carved a niche, especially in wine bars and for outdoor drinking (picnics, barbecues). They have especially struck a chord with fans of natural wine because in order to enjoy them to the full, perhaps one needs to have a slightly different take on outmoded ideas about “wine quality”, and indeed what wine is and can be.
It would be useful to try to define what a “petnat” wine (or pétillant naturel, to give the genre its original French name) is, and we can begin by saying what it is not. Two or three decades ago there were perhaps two main ways of making quality (sic) sparkling wine, with some variations. We have the method used in Champagne, whereby (very broadly speaking) the fermented wine goes into bottle to undergo a second fermentation, started by a liqueur sugar solution, whilst resting on its lees sediment. This sediment is removed (disgorgement) usually after an extended period of ageing, before the bottle is sold. This, with the autolysis created by longer ageing on lees, was always seen as the way to produce fine sparkling wine, with the complexities of that interaction between wine and yeast cells over a number of years in a cool chalk cellar.
The cheaper method was to undertake the process in a tank, most commonly stainless steel. Fermentation is usually much faster here and it is ideally suited to base wines which perhaps have less capacity to age or where complexity is not sought. In France this is called the charmat or cuvé close method. But perhaps the most famous wine mostly made in this way is Prosecco.
Those two methods of making quality sparkling wine (ie other than by merely injecting carbon dioxide into a still wine) are kind of at the two extremes. I’d add …of perceived quality, but of course there are many very good Proseccos made by the Charmat method. They have their own style. Our modern day petnat occupies a kind of middle ground. Most of the pétillant naturel wines we enjoy today are made by a method known as the méthode ancestrale (sometimes called méthode rurale).
With the ancestral method, the second fermentation takes place in bottle, just like Champagne and the wines described in France as Crémant (d’Alsace, du Jura, de Bourgogne etc). The major difference is that with the Ancestral method the wine is not usually disgorged of its sediment, which remains in bottle when sold. Many consumers may be frightened of the sediment and stand the bottle up when chilling so that it remains safely in the bottom of the punt. However, most producers suggest we embrace the sediment, which adds texture and flavour in the glass. The dead yeast cells are totally harmless. Another major difference is that petnats are usually sold in the year following the vintage, so do not undergo long ageing on their lees. There are exceptions.
Thirty years ago, wines made by this method were relatively rare, and those found by the average consumer would mostly be French. The most commonly seen wine (even in some supermarkets) was Blanquette de Limoux, from Southwest France. Adventurous drinkers might have come across wines of a similar style from Bugey, on the edge of the Alpine regions of France. Both were generally off-dry or sweet, with the second fermentation creating bubbles but not converting all the sugar to alcohol. Bugey, by way of its Bugey-Cerdon sparklers, can be extremely good these days, and is very much under the radar. Some wine lovers would have tasted an Italian wine made by a similar method, what writers often called “real Lambrusco” (as opposed to the sweet, industrial, version popular in the 1970s and 80s), sold by a very small selection of specialists here in the UK.
The Ancestral Method can be tricky to get right, and I know of a few producers in the early days, shall we say in the 1990s, who got it wrong, either bottling too early and failing to get bubbles, or doing so late and getting too much CO2, leading to bottles exploding in some cases. The key difference today is that most of the petnats you find are intended to be more or less dry, an added complication to the process requiring more skill and judgement on the part of the winemaker. Equally, some winemakers lightly filter their petnats to reduce sediment, usually at bottling (a few disgorge).
The result is a wine which will most often be a little less sparkling than Champagne, but yet should have a fine bead of bubbles and a good mousse. It will almost always have spent less time on lees than Champagne and other Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wines, and so will lack the complexity brought about by long ageing on the yeast cells, yet it should offer vibrant fruit when young, and aged bottles can be increasingly interesting in their own right.
One big difference to Champagne we might cite is consistency. Petnats will not taste the same from year to year, and are rarely intended to. Some in fact do not contain the same grapes (one of the wines recommended below is a different colour in the current vintage). One major difference may lie in the pressure/bubbles. This is in part due to the imprecise nature of the Ancestral process, but I’m also aware of how the application of the usual closure, a crown cap for petnats, by hand, can lead to loss of pressure. That said, if the wine lacks some of its fizz, that doesn’t usually spoil the experience too much.
The style has been taken to heart by the natural wine world. It fits in so well with the whole ethos, not just of winemaking, but the philosophy of fun which the whole movement promotes.
The first producers to really market the petnat style were in the Loire, one of the early hotbeds of natural wine more generally. It was certainly these wines which I came across first. An early favourite, still brought in by Les Caves de Pyrene is Domaine Mosse’s “Moussamousettes”, a blend of Grolleau Gris, Gamay and sometimes a little Cabernet Franc, so pink in colour, cloudy (if you shake it) and very frothy. For a white petnat, Catherine and Pierre Breton were always a good bet.
Another region where petnats began to crop up in abundance was the Jura, also a hotbed of natural wine experimentation. Alice Bouvot’s Domaine L‘Octavin began making “Foutre d’Escampette” from Chardonnay, although L’Octavin’s most commonly found petnats now are probably the ”Betty Bulles” cuvées. Along with Alice Bouvot’s bubbles, I also got to enjoy a few good bottles from Patrice Béguet, the Ploussard-based “Plouss Mousse”.
Austria was another early adopter of the style, again riding on the back of the natural wine movement and the industry’s transformation by a raft of “new generation” winemakers taking over from their parents. Some of the most exciting petnat wines are coming out of Austria, and nearby countries, Czech Moravia being a case in point. Germany is now also getting in on the act.
Further afield the world is your oyster, but I would recommend being as adventurous as possible. One place where experimentation combines Ancient Method sparkling wine with hybrid grape varieties is in the North American State of Vermont. I will list one below, because it’s a wine I can source here in the UK, but it looks like there’s a lot going on more generally around Lake Champlain.
So, as promised, here’s a selection of petnat wines to try. In limiting the list I’m missing out an awful lot of truly stimulating wines, and I had to cull 50% of my original selection just to keep things sensible. I do drink quite a lot of this style of bubbles, and my revised plan to include just a dozen examples here has stretched slightly. Never let it be said I sell you short. I have tried to offer a spread of regions, but Burgenland and Jura still get two entries each, both cut down from four.
The key to the style is that the wines are fun, and hopefully relatively good value (cheaper than Champagne, though obviously expensive when put alongside cheaper supermarket fizz made by less labour-intensive, less artisan, methods). It just depends how discerning and adventurous you want to be, and of course, how much money you have to spend.
Domaine L’Octavin, Betty Bulles (Arbois)
Alice Bouvot’s gnome labels can be spotted before you even enter the shop, so distinctive are they. The grape blend is unusual. Being one of Alice’s négoce wines, Gamay is sourced in the Ardèche and Muscat near Perpignan, in Roussillon. Light, fresh and very frothy. Alice effectively manages the vineyard, and like all the wines here, there are no additives (except minimal sulphur in some cases, but not here). There is also a white version.
Domaine des Bodines, Red Bulles (Arbois)
Alexis and Emilie Porteret’s provocatively, but accurately, titled wine is made from Poulsard grapes from their vines around Arbois. I described its bouquet as a “riot of raspberry, pomegranate and cranberry”, which it is. Very fruity with an attractive edge. This is a small, very hard-working, family domaine whose wines, over the whole range, are very accomplished, and which is only now beginning to garner the attention it deserves.
Jean Maupertuis, Pink Bulles (Saint-Georges-sur-Allier)
Jean’s “Pink Bulles” is made from old vine Gamay d’Auvergne. Blended with a little Pinot Noir, it has a pale orange tinge. Cherry fruit is joined by strawberries, especially on the bouquet. Its refreshment value is enhanced by a spine of firm acidity and a little texture. I look out for this wine every summer. It’s always popular when opened on a hot summer’s day.
Domaine Philippe Balivet, Bugey-Cerdon (Mérignat)
The Balivet family makes Bugey-Cerdon in both colours and I like both equally, but for summer fun let us go with the pink (though I have white for this summer). Gamay with a smidge of Poulsard, this wine has a good degree of sweetness and low alcohol. It’s a traditional style of méthode ancestrale where not all of the sugar is converted. It is also sealed with a mushroom cork, less common for petnats these days but of course traditional in Bugey.
Rennersistas, In a Hell Mood (Gols, Burgenland)
This is one of my favourites, but I’d also say that some might consider it potentially the most edgy, or feral. You can’t be sure every vintage will be the same blend, but my last bottle was 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir. The overriding quality is freshness, but it can also have a texture some have described as earthiness. I’d say it’s a wine with guts, rather like its makers.
Alexander & Maria Koppitsch, Pretty Nats (Neusiedl-am-See, Burgenland)
It may be quite difficult to source this wine, made by a truly lovely family based just a few kilometres west of the Rennersistas, on the north shore of the Neusiedlersee. It usually appears in small quantities and then disappears almost immediately, due to its very small distribution in the UK. Half Pinot Noir and half St Laurent, fermented in fibreglass, bottled in spring. Simple, but one of the most fun wines in this selection.
Jan Matthias Klein/Staffelter Hof, Papa Panda’s Rising (Kröv, Mosel)
Jan has a range of wines made as a collaboration with other growers which he calls “Pandamonium” (sic). A local grower from Poland grew the Riesling for Papa Panda’s 2019 cuvée on Kröv’s steep slate. Fermented initially in two Füder (Jan and the grower made one each) and then bottled together with no added SO2. If you don’t like fine Riesling Sekt then this would clearly be a couple of steps too far. For those of us who do, this is a fun diversion down wine’s learning curve.
Petr Koráb, The Milkman  (Boleradice, Moravia)
Koráb is perhaps establishing himself as the best producer of the petnat style in Moravia, and frankly any of his petnats are recommended (I’ve drunk a few). My favourite so far has been this one, which featured only last week in my Recent Wines from March 2021. The blend is Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc from old vines picked early. Maturation is in robinia (false acacia) barrels and the colour is an enticing pale orange. You get red fruits, citrus peel, and even a hint of curry powder. Although it is dry and crisp, there’s also a creaminess, from where it gets its name. But note that the 2020 version is apparently made from Pinot Blanc and Neuburské (Neuburger).
Annamária Réka Koncz, Pretty Cold (Barabás, Eastern Hungary)
This wine probably has the most unusual grape blend as it’s based on the autochthonous Királyléanyka variety. It is rammed with fine bubbles and has quite an ethereal nose hinting of red and citrus fruits. The palate contrasts with texture and minerality, with a firm backbone. Production is quite low and it is presently sold out, but I presume we shall see some here via Basket Press Wines when their next shipment arrives from Hungary, perhaps in a few months.
ENGLAND & WALES
Tillingham Wines, PN** (Rye, East Sussex)
As the vines at Tillingham became established Ben Walgate bought in organic fruit and started to experiment like mad. He was not the first to make petnat on our islands, but he has been prolific, and I could easily have selected other cuvées here, especially “Col”. But I’ve gone for “PN” because it was the first one I tried. It’s slightly different every vintage but the first, PN17, was just so exciting. Pinot Noir was the main grape variety and it was packed with red fruits, pretty simple but delicious, which is just what you are looking for. PN20 blends seven different varieties for a gently sparkling strawberry and peach fruit bomb.
Ancre Hill Estate, Triomphe (Monmouth, Wales)
This highly regarded biodynamic estate on the Welsh Borders made its name through traditional bottle-fermented wines, but this is something different. One reason is that it is unmistakably a red wine. Secondly, it is made from the hybrid variety, Triomphe (aka Triomph D’Alsace). It is a non-vintage wine in that new juice is blended with the previous year’s wine and fermented to a low pressure of 2-to-3 bar (gently fizzy). It’s frothy, dark-fruited and just 10% abv. Very different, great fun.
La Garagista, Grace & Favour (Lake Champain, Vermont)
The grape variety is the hybrid (La) Crescent, descended it is claimed from the Great Vine (Muscat d’Ambourg) at Hampton Court, outside London. I like this for its savoury depth, a little weight and, dare I say it (for a hybrid), a little complexity. I just think it’s one of the most interesting sparkling wines you’ll find. I’m almost tempted to call it “profound”, but then you’d think I’m silly.
Tim Wildman Wines, Heavy Petting (Riverland, South Australia)
There are plenty of petnats in Australia now, and equally some very interesting wines being made in the same way as Col Fondo Prosecco, using the same Glera grape variety (check them out). But I have decided to select one of a series of wines made by English MW Tim Wildman, mainly because they are completely crazy…in a good way. Heavy Petting blends Nero d’Avola and Zibibbo from the vast Riverland Region. Zero dosage, zero added sulphur, ruby red and full of sediment. I think Tim changes his source but Tim’s label will always guarantee excitement and adventure.
The Hermit Ram, Ancestral Müller Thurgau (North Canterbury, South Island)
Theo Coles is always experimenting, but few people in NZ still use what was the country’s first mainstay variety before the savalanche occurred. Whole clusters go into open top fermenters and then settle in tank. On bottling, some frozen unfermented juice is added to promote the second fermentation, but then nothing more is added, nor taken out. The wine generally has a kind of raw edge to it, like most of Theo’s wines. Millions will disagree, but I think he’s making the best wines in New Zealand right now. Plenty, however, will agree that they are the most interesting. What a coincidence, another bottle of this arrived today. Party Time!