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Has Pét-Nat Jumped the Shark?

June 29, 2023

Story: Megan Krigbaum

art: Mallory Heyer


Has Pét-Nat Jumped the Shark?

June 29, 2023

Story: Megan Krigbaum

art: Mallory Heyer

The category of lightly fizzy, sometimes cloudy sparkling wines has gone from somewhat-niche party wine to full-on brand.

A few weeks back, a wine director for several restaurants with natural wine–focused lists told me that he wasn’t pouring pét-nat by the glass anymore. The bubbles, he said, fade more quickly than sparklers made in the Champagne method, which meant he ended up throwing out a lot of wine. This, compounded by rising prices and bottle variability, ultimately made it unsustainable. To hear this from someone who’s championed natural wines for a decade came as a surprise. Pét-nat, after all, has become a beacon for natural wine discovery, an easy, party-ready wine that’s fueled a new generation of drinkers. Have we maxed out on it?

Pét-nat’s beginnings were sort of a felicitous mistake—wines were unintentionally bottled early, before fermentation had fully run its course, resulting in something fizzy and cheerful. Zachary Sussman defined the category for Punch back in 2015. Since then, pét-nat has gone on a wild ride, arriving at sunny park hangs from the far corners of the wine world—France’s Loire Valley to Oregon’s Columbia Gorge to the eastern stretches of Slovenia—and in every shade of the rainbow. 

Currently, importer Zev Rovine says he brings in 75 different bottlings. Jenny Lefcourt, of importer Jenny & François, went all in, too, doubling both her selection of imports and her sales between 2019 and 2022. But even she admits that there’s finite space for these wines on retail shelves and wine lists. “If there are too many on the market, at some point there is saturation. I think a lot of winemakers jumped into making pét-nats when they saw the popularity, and now there are just too many,” she says. 

In the mad dash to assimilate pét-nat, plenty of other outstanding sparkling wine was pushed to the side. Pét-nat the brand may have paved the way for everyday sparkling wine appreciation, but it also flooded the zone. “Unfortunately, everyone wanted to jump on the pét-nat wagon and so many winemakers are putting out inferior [wines],” says Talitha Whidbee of Brooklyn’s Vine Wine, a shop that champions bubbles in all forms. She’s noticed a certain set of customers that not only ask for pét-nat, but assume that natural wine means pét-nat and that pét-nat means natural wine—neither of which is true.

You’re working with a much more volatile product than Champagne; it’s a dice roll if you don’t know what you’re doing with true pétillant.

In theory, pét-nat is a stripped-down, less-technical version of sparkling wine. Whereas wines made in the Champagne method see two rounds of fermentation, pétillant-naturel is a straight shot, single fermentation. Winemakers operate as they would for a still wine, but before all of the sugar is converted to alcohol in the vat, it’s bottled and capped, finishing fermentation in the bottle, thus trapping carbon dioxide and anything else—from flavor to errant bacteria—inside. To make really good pét-nat, you have to nail the precise moment to bottle with regards to sugar levels in the midst of an active fermentation, then get that completely unstable liquid into a bottle, while also ensuring that the wine is free from flaws before they’re forever stuck in there, like a genie in a bottle.

One undeniable pitfall with pét-nats is that if there are any flaws, the bubbles make those flaws all the more apparent. “Any time you’ve got a lot of flavor and bubbles, you’re gonna notice flaws faster,” says Peter Hale of Maine & Loire, a shop he and his wife, Orenda, own in Portland, Maine, that features over 300 sparkling wines. “The bubbles aspirate all of those compounds—both the things you want and the things you don’t want. You’re working with a much more volatile product than Champagne; it’s a dice roll if you don’t know what you’re doing with true pétillant.” 

The couple still remain serious in their search for quality versions, especially in the under-$30 range, which notches both the old guard of pét-nat as well as more recent entries from producers like Mas Gomà in Catalunya, Ariane Lesné in France’s Côteaux du Vendômois and Stirm Wine Co. on California’s Central Coast. “There’s not one on our shelves that I wouldn’t happily throw on ice and drink. They’re wines that are meant to be opened, consumed and on to the next,” Peter Hale says.

Without question, there are plenty of pét-nats that are delightful year after year, regardless of slight differences in sweetness or color or bubbles. Jorge Riera, who’s run some of the most lauded natural wine programs in New York City—Ten Bells to Wildair and now Frenchette and Le Rock—points to Moussamoussettes from Agnès and René Mosse in the Loire as a legacy pét-nat worth returning to. “The name, the strawberry glow, and the damn good taste of it... Everyone looks forward to this release to this day.” 

Producers like Les Capriades, also in the Loire, have carved out their own niche in the category, disgorging their wines, aiming at something that is Champagne-esque in result despite being resoundingly from the Loire. (Sadly, Pascal Potaire and Moses Gaddouche of Les Capriades are retiring from winemaking this year.) This faithfulness to place is something that often gets lost in pét-nat. You have to tune in to the producers and understand their craft to weed out the good from the wild from the extraordinary,” says Helen Johannesen, wine director of Jon & Vinny’s and owner of Helen’s Wines in Los Angeles.

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Say what you will about the required sifting through the good and outright lousy iterations of this category to suss out the truly great (we’ve arrived at this similar moment of reckoning for orange wine and probably rosé, too), but we do have this pét-nat hysteria to thank for normalizing drinking bubbles in a more casual way. 

When pét-nat first came into view, the allure of it—beyond its drinkability—was that it was an affordable way to drink bubbles, a stark contrast to the grower Champagne movement. But as prices for pét-nat (as with wine in general) creep up and up, it’s no longer necessarily the budget choice. (In fact, some are nearing the prices of certain grower Champagnes.) Undeniably, there’s plenty of discovery to be made in the neon pink, hazy realm of pét-nat, as well as the more precise, disgorged version of it, but there’s just as much to be made in other styles, too.

And so while Johannesen is quick to note that she’s resolute in her support of many beloved pét-nat producers, she will also continue to indulge her customers’ wider-ranging interests in bubbles, including lower-priced “non-Champs, but Champs-style sparklers, especially when dining,” she says.Maybe these trends are a result of the public’s desire to understand wine, so they’re taking category by category,” she adds. “I think all the poser pét-nats that were not being made for the art of it can subside.” Her next exploit? Fruit wines from the Pacific Northwest.

Just Beyond the Spotlight

Domaine Dupasquier Perles d’Aimavigne Blanc de Blancs Brut $25

Lest we forget about the myriad sparkling wines made all around France—not just the pét-nat-centric Loire or the pricey hills of Champagne—this, from the Savoie, is a welcome reminder. A blend of three white grapes (jacquère, altesse and chardonnay), the base for this fresh, thoughtful wine is aged in large wood barrels before seeing a second fermentation in bottle. Certainly, the price for this wine belies the work and gracefulness achieved here. As the Savoie finds its way onto the radar of more drinkers, the wines from Dupasquier are destined to garner appreciation; undoubtedly, so will the prices.

  • Price: $28

Scheuermann Vin de Soda

“Just about the most delicious sparkling for everyday usage,” says Talitha Whidbee of this sparkling riesling, made from organic fruit in Germany’s Pfalz. Brothers Gabriel and Simon Scheuermann are to thank for this tingly, mouthwatering and intensely satisfying wine. Made in the Charmat style (a method used widely in Prosecco and Lambrusco production), by which wines are fermented and then see secondary fermentation in a pressurized tank, this is the sort of sparkler that you might not even realize you’re gulping until it’s gone.

  • Price: $22

Grosjean Montmary Extra Brut Rosé

Named for an Alpine peak, this rosé from a consistent star in Italy’s Val de Aosta evokes walking along a forest path and suddenly becoming aware that you’re surrounded by just-ripe strawberries hanging low to the ground. This sits in that perfect spot between sweet and tart, with a ceaseless and welcome frothiness.

  • Price: $31

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