Pétillant naturel, or “pét-nat,” experienced a good turn in recent years as the unofficial party wine of the naturalist movement. The wines enjoyed so much popularity, in fact, that they seeped into the mainstream—their crown caps found far and wide.
How, though, did a bunch of quirky, fizzy wines suddenly find traction? In the case of pét-nat, I think it wasn’t just their minimalist resonance. They tapped into a deeper of-the-moment desire for less technologically driven products, for the return to a simpler (real or imagined) past. And they offered a distinct contrast to the cheap and relatively industrial efforts that make up most of the sparkling-wine world. Sparkling wines needed a dose of Luddite-lite, and pét-nat was there to deliver.
Of course, nothing in wine is truly new. Pét-nat is based a historical French practice called méthode ancestrale, or “ancestral method,” which actually predates that of Champagne. Their sparkle is not achieved by adding cultured yeast and sugar, but by capturing the original wine’s own remaining sugar and yeast in a bottle—letting the wine make its own bubbles, as it were.
But if ancestrale wines like Blanquette de Limoux had become fusty artifacts, pét-nat offered something a bit shiny and new: It appeared sui generis about 20 years ago—made without hard and fast rules, and almost inevitably bottled as vin de France, willfully rejecting the formality of French appellations. Winemakers made it with pretty much any grape that came their way, from traditional chenin blanc or chardonnay to things like spicy pineau d’aunis. And if it essentially started as a French phenomenon—its putative father was Loire winemaker Christian Chaussard—the production of pét-nat quickly spread around the world.
Now comes the hard part. In order to endure, pét-nat must mature as a category, and be taken a bit more seriously. Otherwise, it currently stands the risk of hitting peak-fad and fading, and I don’t think anyone wants pét-nat to be remembered as the steampunk of wine. As Pascal Potaire of Les Capriades, one of the masters of the form, put it to me: “Pétillant naturel is a real wine, and you have to think of it as a real wine.”
Fortunately that’s exactly what is starting to happen. A lot of old radical-for-radical’s sake thinking is being replaced by a sort of professionalization—or at least that was my takeaway after a couple weeks tasting sparkling wines throughout the Touraine area of France’s Loire, ground zero for the pét-nat movement. I was especially heartened by my afternoon at a tasting called Bulles au Centre, organized by Potaire and his winemaking partner, Moses Gadouche, and held annually in the Loire Valley town of Montrichard. Out of more than 40 pét-nats that I tasted, only a handful were annotated by the crude little drawing of a mouse I mark in my notes these days, signifying the off-trait known as mousiness.
Of course, a lot of pét-nat fans might bristle at my notion of tasting these wines critically, just as they might not love the idea of pét-nat growing up. After all, the point of these wines was to not be grown up. To quote a very quotable movie: “Didn’t we all get into this to avoid responsibility?”
And sure, the wines were intended to be casual and fun, in an artisan way, and to embody the same jazzy ethos beloved in the craft beer world. They were perfect for our rules-free wine age. And they charmed specifically because they were cheaper and more populist than Champagne—a point made clear as I drank my way through most of a bottle of pét-nat made by an emerging Loire talent named Ludovic Chanson, dubbed, “Sans Pagne.”
But Champagne isn’t the easy target for derision it was not long ago. It has been successfully shuffling off a cynical, marketing-driven era, and today grower Champagnes and small production are increasingly a way of life in the region. The Champenois got serious about making real wine.
All the while, the Peter Pan approach taken by many pét-nat producers now feels like a willful rejection of the responsibility that comes with craft. If a lot of the wines still sport silly in-joke names, like “Obi Wine” (as in Kenobi), they’re not quirky little experiments anymore. It’s important to stop treating them that way, in the same way it’s crucial to move on from treating them like the flavor of the month—the new rosé.
Among other things, sparkling wine is a lot harder than it looks to produce—harder still with one hand tied behind your back. (In the case of pét-nat, you can’t, for instance, do as they do in Champagne and choose how much sugar and yeast to use in order to make the wine sparkle.) And a lot of pét-nats have been plagued by wonky microbial problems, mousiness and otherwise. But pét-nat has largely been getting a pass, because it was treated as a novelty, and it enjoyed protection under the naturalist rubric.
That said, the best practitioners increasingly understand that there are real stakes today with these wines, perhaps no one more than Potaire and Gadouche, who have become known for their particularly refined style. While they have impeccable naturalist cred, they’re also fastidious with things like cellar hygiene. They often age their wines, versus the quick “ready by spring” approach many pét-nats receive. And they disgorge their bottles (by hand) before selling them—a move that purists have traditionally pooh-poohed. (It was interesting to see how many wines at the tasting were disgorged; in fact, the old image of cloudy and deposit-filled pét-nat is becoming increasingly rare.)
They have company, in the form of winemakers like Marie Thibaut of Azay-le-Rideau to the west; the Mosse family in the Anjou area; Damien Delecheneau of La Grange Tiphaine; and newcomers like Domaine l’Austal in Puy-Notre-Dame. They also have fellow partisans encouraging ever better work on these shores, including winemakers like Michael Cruse in California, who a couple years ago was already on a crusade to make pét-nat “a serious thing.”
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. I drove back from the tasting not especially convinced that, for instance, the mauzac grape makes great pét-nat, although I’m sure it could—as it’s the base material for very low-tech Blanquette de Limoux. More importantly, the style of the wines is still often a mystery. Are they sweet or dry? They can be delicious either way, but they often vary, and not everyone can have the winemaker standing across an upturned barrel to explain. (Plus, ask Alsace just how well that whole sweetness-mystery thing works.)
In fact, there’s good precedent for pét-nat assuming a more adult form. In 2007, the forward-thinking appellation of Montlouis approved the “pétillant originel” category, thanks to a successful campaign by pioneers like Delecheneau and Lise and Bertrand Jousset, who realized that approval from as stodgy an entity as France’s appellation overseer, the INAO, could affirm pét-nat’s life beyond punk.
In fact, we might well end up with the situation I saw this time around in Vouvray, an appellation that just two years ago seemed fated to make an ocean of fizzy supermarket wine. Today, a raft of younger winemakers like Vincent Carême, Sébastien Brunet and Mathieu Cosme are producing both traditional Champagne-style wines as well as pét-nats—which they occasionally even bottle under the Vouvray name.
At first, I wondered: Were they denaturing pét-nat of its rebel value? Ultimately, though, this felt like it might be an even more radical act. Because when pét-nat stops using its outsider status as a crutch, it will have found a sustainable path to succeed.