How long does a wine trend have to stick around before it no longer qualifies as such?
Now that a decade has passed since the first examples started bubbling up on U.S. shores, we can all agree that pét-nat crossed that threshold a while ago. No longer dismissed as a passing fad, the lightly sparkling, often-cloudy style has staked its claim as a fixture of wine’s new mainstream.
As every article ever penned on the subject will tell you, the style owes its street cred to the ancestral method of fermentation, an approach that pre-dates the invention of Champagne by more than two centuries. Although the term has no legal definition, it’s commonly understood as the oldest and simplest way of getting a wine to sparkle. Unlike Champagne, whose effervescence results from a secondary fermentation via added sugar and yeast, pét-nat derives its fizz from bottling the wine while the primary fermentation is still in process, trapping CO2 and imparting a soft froth of bubbles.
Whether the French “méthode ancestrale” or the Italian “metodo ancestrale,” some approximation of this process has been adopted in specific corners of France and Italy for ages. So when the late Loire naturalist Christian Chaussard, with the help of a bunch of his friends, effectively invented pét-nat back in the 1990s, they were simply reviving an ancient practice.
Upon closer inspection, however, pét-nat’s meteoric rise has confused the past as much as it has reclaimed it. By repackaging the ancestral method as the hottest thing in wine, the style swiftly went global, giving rise to iterations from Mexico to Maine to Moravia. But as with any attempt to revive tradition, when you divorce the technique from the original context, something inevitably is lost. Kevin McKenna of natural wine importer Louis/Dressner Selections sums it up neatly: “We’ve seen a clouding of the distinctions between pétillant naturel … and what is considered traditional in certain places in Italy and France, where the ancestral method has always been a well-developed thing.”
In other words, in an ironic twist of fate, pét-nat’s runaway success as a crown-capped party wine has made it more famous than the wines that originally inspired it. From the sweet pink fizz of Savoie’s Bugey-Cerdon to the ancestral-method wines of southern France’s Gaillac, Limoux and the Rhône’s Diois, plus the hazy, bottle-fermented frizzante of prosecco and Emilia-Romagna, these storied wines existed generations before anyone uttered the words “pét-nat.” So why do we hardly ever hear about them?
According to Florent Plageoles of Domaine Plageoles, a pioneer of natural winemaking in the southwestern French region of Gaillac, “The term ‘pétillant naturel’ was mainly created to categorize sparkling wines made with the ancestral method in regions where they didn’t historically produce those types of wines.” Although he claims not to mind when people label his sparkling Mauzac Nature as a pét-nat, he’s also quick to highlight the significance of practicing the technique in a place like Gaillac, where it’s deeply embedded within the local heritage.
“Technically, our sparkling mauzac could be classified as a pétillant naturel,” Plageoles explains. “But the ancestral method of Gaillac, or the ‘méthode Gaillacoise’ as we sometimes call it, was created centuries ago. It’s representative of the Gaillac terroir, mainly through its native grape, mauzac, and its particular winemaking techniques.”
The difference, in his view, runs deeper than just nomenclature. Far from a fun, fizzy side project, the goal is to produce a specific style of wine that has been telling the story of Gaillac for generations. Along with the naturally sparkling wines of Limoux, the Diois and the delicately sweet sparkling rosés of Savoie’s Bugey, tucked up in the foothills of the Jura mountains between Geneva and Lyon, these ancestral-method wines each represent a tradition of their own.
Among the most conscientious stewards of Bugey’s legacy, the revered 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.
Over the years, they’ve perfected a rigorous approach to the ancestral method that—in stark contrast to much pét-nat—leaves little to chance. This involves deliberately chilling the wine in the tank to halt the primary fermentation, then lightly filtering before bottling and storing the wine at cold temperatures to preserve delicacy and freshness. Berry-ish, mineral-driven and just the right amount of sweet, it’s one of the great examples of the French ancestral-method tradition, displaying the same brisk alpine purity that has revived interest in Savoie’s wines as a whole.
“In an ironic twist of fate, pét-nat’s runaway success as a crown-capped party wine has made it more famous than the wines that originally inspired it.”
When we think of the ancestral method, our thoughts first turn to France, but Italy’s traditions extend back just as far. Just consider the old-school frizzante wines of prosecco and Emilia-Romagna, the historical home of lambrusco. Over recent years, both areas have experienced an artisanal revival of the rustic, lightly sparkling “col fondo” wines (bottled with the sediment intact) that were regional staples until the shift to bulk production in the 1960s and ’70s left them on the brink of extinction.
Granted, pét-nat’s popularity initially paved the way for the wider appreciation of these wines. But despite sharing certain aesthetic similarities, vis-à-vis a touch of cloudiness and funk, the two categories could hardly be considered synonymous.
While some Italian “col fondo” conforms to our established definition of the ancestral method as the result of one fermentation, the technique has evolved over time. Many producers of natural lambrusco and prosecco now use the term “metodo ancestrale” to refer to wines that represent something of a rural halfway house between the ancestral and Champagne methods, in which natural grape must is added to a still base wine before bottling. Typically left undisgorged, the final impression conjures the farmhouse fizz of generations gone by, even if the technique has been updated. “It’s probably best to think of it as a reenactment of the way things were done in the past,” explains Ernest Ifkovitz of Porto Vino Selections, a specialist in Italy’s bottle-fermented bubblies.
With no legal definition, it should come as no surprise that the ancestral method has come to mean different things in different places. But the tendency to lump all of its expressions together under pét-nat’s catch-all umbrella prevents a more complex appreciation of what they actually are. “Every time I see [celebrated prosecco producer] Costadilà tagged on Instagram as a pét-nat, I go a little batshit,” laments natural wine importer Jules Dressner.
This category error could be dismissed as pedantic if it didn’t obscure something more profound. The “col fondo” resistance movement underway in Italy’s oldest sparkling wine regions arose in response to a specific historical context. To its members, the style’s comeback represents the excavation of an actual way of life—one that might have died out entirely if it weren’t for their efforts to preserve it. As Luca Ferrero of prosecco’s family-operated Bele Casel estate puts it, “We’re used to people calling our ‘col fondo’ pét-nat, but what we’re doing isn’t something new—it’s how the bubbles of prosecco were originally born.”
At a time when so much modern wine culture trades upon a connection to the past, real or imagined, it’s a potent reminder that sometimes the most enduring traditions are those we never even knew we risked losing.
Renardat-Fâche Cerdon du Bugey 2018
Renardat-Fâche is arguably the standard bearer for Bugey, without question on of the world’s most underrated wines. Bottled without the lees, it pours a transparent strawberry pink, all the better to highlight its crystalline “mountain air” freshness and crunchy red fruit. [Buy]
Domaine Plageoles Mauzac Nature 2018
Embodying the natural wine movement’s “what’s old is new” mantra, the acclaimed Plageoles estate is among just a handful of winemakers in the Gaillac region keeping the area’s ancestral-method traditions alive. Hazy and floral, with a twinge of chamomile tea and baked apple, their sparkling mauzac is as OG as it gets, with a light froth of bubbles and a whiff of cider-like funk. [Buy]
Monge Granon Clairette de Die Équinoxe NV
An oasis of fizzy whites in a part of France known for its burly reds, the Rhône Valley’s Diois region specializes in Clairette de Die, another semisweet, sparkling dessert wine based off of the clairette and muscat grapes. Gently sweet, with a hint of lemon curd and a cleansing rinse of acidity, this one, from the little-known Monge Granon estate in the village of Vercheny, drinks like the wine equivalent of key lime pie. [Buy]
Le Vigne di Alice Prosecco A Fondo NV
“I decided to make this wine because I remember seeing my grandfather Angelo produce it when I was a child,” says winemaker Cinzia Canzian of her piercing, bone-dry “col fondo.” Sourced from organically farmed glera grapes in the classic Prosecco zone of Valdobbiadene and bottled without sulfur, it has a salty minerality and flavors of green pear, with a slight creaminess coming from the lees. [Buy]
Vigneto Saetti Rosso Viola Lambrusco 2018
Long a standard-bearer for natural, bottle-fermented lambrusco and a pioneer of organic agriculture in Emilia-Romagna, the family-run Saetti estate has played an instrumental role in the revival of “real” lambrusco.” Always a standout, their Rosso Viola showcases the structured side of the salamino strain of the lambrusco grape, with a wild streak of violets and savory herbs. [Buy]