Crib Sheet: Your Guide to American Pét-Nat

Welcome to "Crib Sheet," your monthly shortcut to what's hot in wine right now, in four bottles, courtesy of Jon Bonné. This month: a look at the boom of American pét-nat.

Often, I’m drawn back to the story of Nicholas Longworth. Longworth, a prominent Ohio real estate investor turned vintner, cultivated the catawba grape on the hills outside Cincinnati and, starting in the 1840s, found international success with his sparkling catawba—a wine compared favorably with real Champagne. It even inspired Longfellow to pen an “Ode to Catawba Wine.”

I see two lessons in Longworth’s tale. First: Americans have loved homegrown fizzy wine for a very long time. And second: Not only do American sparkling wines not have to copy Champagne, but they also don’t need to come from expected places, or be made from traditional grapes.

His success also offers a precedent to the recent surge in American pétillant naturel, a style of sparkling wine now in vogue—literally, in Vogue—not only with wine trendsetters, but among the general trendsetter population.What until recently was an obscure style found among avant-garde French wine minimalists has come to the heartland.

As much as anything, the embrace of pét-nat is a sign of domestic wine’s tectonic shift away from raised-pinky pretensions to a casual, freestyle era, one that borrows a page or two from the craft beer world. It’s not just that it’s also fizzy, or that it can taste at times like a homebrew (I mean that in both good and bad ways), it’s that the style is being made today not just in obvious places, like California and Oregon, but in states as diverse as Maine, New York, Vermont and Maryland.

To understand the cultural importance of pét-nat, you first need to know a bit about how sparkling wine is made.

Traditional sparkling wine, including Champagne, involves an elaborate, intrusive and time-consuming process: A dose of sugar and yeast are added to very acidic base wine, and it’s all left in a bottle to age on its lees (spent yeast cells and such), usually for 15 months minimum, often for years. A second fermentation, wherein the yeast converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide—hence the bubbles—creates the sparkling texture.

Pét-nat takes one big step out of this process: Rather than adding sugar and yeast to a finished base wine, the wine is put in bottle while still a bit sweet. Its fermentation continues in the bottle, and the wine becomes naturally sparkling. The naturel is supposed to denote that the same indigenous yeasts both fermented the grape juice and sparkled the wine, in one more or less continuous process. The argument behind pét-nat is that it can offer a purer interpretation of grape and place than the more willful winemaking involved in the Champagne process. That in turn has made it the methode du jour for a lot of naturalist winemakers.

After tasting through no fewer than 25 bottles of American pét-nat at PUNCH—an impressive reflection of the form’s current popularity—it might be most appropriate to say that pét-nat is emerging as an American craft, a bit earlier on the curve than the many French versions being made today. We found at least a half-dozen very good examples, in colors from bright white to inky purple. Several specimens made from the fragrant malvasia and muscat grapes were so good that we struggled not to down the whole bottle mid-tasting. And a red pét-nat from Long Island’s Channing Daughters did a solid impression of great Lambrusco.

More than anything, the diverse geography impressed us. The gang at Old Westminster, in Maryland, is having almost too much fun with their range of pét-nats, including a beautiful sparkling albariño. (Anyone who doubts that America is, indeed, great again need look no further than a fizzy albariño made outside Baltimore.) And I’ve had lots more great examples this year. The Ci Confonde rosé, made from the hybrid frontenac gris grape, is a calling card for Deirdre Heekin and her La Garagista winery, demonstrating that Vermont is ready for a proper wine industry. Oyster River’s Morphos, though currently made from New York hybrid grapes, is doing the same for Maine. And Regan and Carey Meador of Southold Farm + Cellar have been the great fizzy trailblazers of Long Island. (All the sadder that they’re leaving town.)

Obviously, California’s force is strong here, in particular the wines made by Michael Cruse, one of the state’s emerging masters of sparkling wine. But there’s also impressive pét-nat carignane from Healdsburg’s Ryme Cellars, sparkling trousseau (made by Cruse) for the Combe label and a perennially delicious pétillant malvasia from Birichino.

One crucial thing to remember is that many of these wines succeed where a still wine might not. Garagista’s pét-nat is surely the most pleasant way I’ve ever drunk frontenac gris, and if bubbles give an identity to Maryland albariño, all the better. The scant ripeness in East Coast wine regions becomes an asset in pét-nat; add bubbles and bottle conditioning, and the high acidity becomes just right for a wine on a summer table.

Even so, this was a more challenging tasting than we expected. Many bottles displayed flaws, including vinegar-like volatile acidity and some of the earthy tones that usually come from the brettanomyces yeast. Those flavors can charm in small doses—and naturalistas often fiercely defend them. But they were only a small part of a bewildering array of off-flavors, ranging from week-old Capri Sun to mashed peas to dirty fish tank.

These results also underscored a basic but little-discussed issue: defining what qualifies as a pét-nat. A handful of purists insist that getting rid of the bottle’s spent yeast, a process known as disgorgement, defiles the nothing-added, nothing-removed philosophy. Their undisgorged wines, often cloudy from the retained lees like a good saison beer, can be delicious. But they can also be unwieldy to drink (if you’ve ever seen a sommelier wrangle a spuming bottle, you know what I mean), and many winemakers, including some avowed naturalists, now disgorge their pét-nats the way they might with Champagne—in part because they worry about the potential for unhappy flavors (see “fish tank,” above).

Like many things surrounding the word “natural,” this is a niggling debate. Both approaches can work. But they have to succeed, and, at times, even some of the pét-nats being sold in respectable joints taste to me like evolving projects, with customers expected to pay for the results.

Which is to say: To succeed in the long term, pét-nat will need lose some of its sexy Rousseauist romance and embrace a bit more technical rigor. Actually, that was my conclusion over a year ago, after a discussion with Michael Cruse. His point at the time was that, no matter how naturel you want your pétillant to be, the required winemaking remains highly technical, and benefits from some know-how plucked from Champagne-style methods: how to adjust sugar levels to get the right amount of carbonation, or how to check yeast-cell counts to ensure a healthy fermentation.

At the same time, I hardly want to discourage tinkerers. Perhaps, I wondered during our tasting, American pét-nat in 2016 is a bit like craft IPAs in the early 1990s: an important form that’s still finding its way. And perhaps what it needs now is to let go of some outsider cred, to choose refined over renegade. That was essentially Cruse’s take, too, when I talked with him again this week.

“My hope is not that less people do it,” he told me. “My hope is that we dial it in.”

That should be totally achievable, even if the path is a bit less sexy. And it’s important, because American pét-nats represent a truly novel idea in American craft, one with a proud lineage at least back to the days of Longworth: that the great and unexpected can be captured in a bottle.

The Classic

2015 Birichino Pétulant Naturel Monterey Malvasia Bianca | $24
Alex Krause and John Locke, based on California’s Central Coast, have nailed this wine—sourced from grapes grown in the Salinas Valley—for at least the past three years, and it keeps getting better. It flirts with definitions just a bit, in that some fermenting muscat canelli is added prior to bottling to help produce the fizz. OTOH, it’s also undisgorged and unfiltered, and just a tiny bit sweet. It brims with the floral aspects—honeysuckle and orange blossom—that make malvasia so pretty in sparkling form. [Buy]

See also: Onward Capp Inn Ranch Malvasia Bianca Pétillant Naturel

The Outlier

2015 Old Westminster Home Vineyard Maryland Albariño Pétillant Naturel | $35
This is where homegrown pét-nat gets interesting. “Home” indicates Westminster, Maryland, between Baltimore and the Pennsylvania border, where the Baker family is trying to make a case for serious mid-Atlantic wine. Trained in chemistry, winemaker Lisa Hinton may not be an obvious pét-nat poster child, but her efforts are refined and subtly flavored, impressive for anywhere and downright groundbreaking for Maryland. Their albariño is the most pleasurable of the lot (a grüner veltliner was interesting but a bit mild in its flavors), with the grape’s quintessential peach and talc aspects on full display. [Buy]

See also: La Garagista’s Ci Confonde and Ci Confonde Rosé, Oyster River’s Morphos, Minimus Vitae Springs Pétillant Naturel

The Star | Tie

2015 Day Wines Mamacita! Mae’s Vineyard Applegate Valley Malvasia Pétillant Naturel | $29
Oregon rising star Brianne Day tends to get attention for her still wines, but her fizzy malvasia further proves our thesis about that grape. It has all these beautifully heady aromas—pink grapefruit and jasmine—plus a slightly leesy side that evokes a sense memory of terrifically fresh grapefruit juice. The ripeness of fruit, here from a popular southern Oregon vineyard, is spot-on. [Buy]

2015 Cruse Wine Co. Ricci Vineyard Pétillant Naturel Carneros Sparkling St. Laurent | $28
The trick with Michael Cruse’s wines is finding them before they’re sold out, and it’s no different with this effort from a native Austrian grape grown near California’s San Pablo Bay. It’s a bit too powerful to be rosé, with a meaty, almost bacon-like, savory side, plus mashed plum fruit, violets and a tranquility to the bubbles. At just 9.5 percent alcohol, it’s also fully dry and crisp in its texture—showing the subtlety that comes from Cruse’s egghead-au-naturel approach. [Buy]

See also: Combe Sparkling Trousseau

The Tinkerer

2015 Channing Daughters Rosso Long Island Pétillant Naturel | $27
Channing Daughters’ Christopher Tracy is a perpetual-motion machine—always working on something new. (It’s why Channing, based in the Hamptons, has 30 or more wines in the mix at any time.) Hence there’s pét-nat in all the flavors. His results can vary, but we were taken with this year’s Rosso, a kitchen-sink effort of seven red grapes, with refosco and syrah taking the lead roles. It has an aggressively fizzy side—all the Channing bottles did—but when it calms down, it does a solid impression of the good parts of Lambrusco: blackcurrant fruit and poppy seed spice, making it just right for pizza. [Buy]

See also: Southold Farm + Cellar Chasing Moonlight, Red Tail Ridge Estate Vineyard Riesling Pétillant Naturel, Macari Vineyards Horses, Broc Cellars Chenin Blanc, Ryme Crackling Carignane