Pet-Nats: the pet name for Pétillant-Naturel, or "naturally sparkling" wines. What the heck are they and why the heck are they so trendy right now? GREAT QUESTION, READER. Let's dive in.
"Pet-Nat" is a term used for sparkling wines made in the ancestral method. The ancestral method looks like this:
Basically, hipsters these days are making sparkling wines the way wine makers made sparkling wines before they knew how to make sparkling wines.
Back in ye olden times, winemaking was very simple. People would crush grapes, the juice would magically turn boozy (thanks to ambient yeasts, but they didn't fully understand the whole process at that point), then they'd stick the juice in a bottle and call it a day. They didn't filter the yeasts out the way modern winemakers do, they just bottled it and left it in the cellar. This was usually around winter so the cellar got pretty cold. Yeast, being not unlike a native San Diegan, freaks out when it's cold and refuses to go outside and be productive; it just goes to sleep.
But then, spring comes! The temperatures warm up and as soon as it's appropriate to wear sundresses the yeast will once again do its thing. It starts eating up whatever sugar was left in the juice then it burps out alcohol and, more importantly, Carbon Dioxide. That's the gas that dissolves into the wine and creates fizz. For those winemakers back in the day this was incredibly frustrating because their glass bottles couldn't survive the extra air pressure and would straight up explode all over the cellar. Dom Pérignon, contrary to popular belief, spent a lot of his life trying to prevent this from happening. He eventually did contribute learning that led to the "traditional method" in which Champagne is made now, but he certainly didn't discover bubbly wine and romantically sigh, "I am drinking the stars". It was almost definitely more of a "HOLY MOTHER OF MERDE THERE'S A GODDAMN MINEFIELD IN MY BASEMENT RIGHT NOW SOMEONE GET ME A HELMET SO I CAN GO DOWN THERE AND MAKE IT STOP!!1!"
Eventually they did find thicker glass that could survive secondary fermentation and the ancestral method evolved into the Champagne we know today. But, a lot of trendy winemakers are now reviving this old method because honestly, it's pretty cool.
Pet-Nats are arguably the most natural and unique expression of a vineyard that you can get. Although some winemakers do choose to filter their wines after the fact so they're clear or use designer yeasts, a lot choose to use ambient yeasts and leave the cloudy sediment in the bottle. All that means is that rather than buy a specific strain of yeast from a lab which will behave and taste a certain way, they opt to use the yeasts that are just flying around the vineyard and winery--because yes, delicious yeasts are floating all around us all the time--which have unpredictable but kinda fun taste profiles. It's the same way sour beer and sourdough bread ferment and the flavors can be similar too.
So for the most natural of pétillant-naturels, winemakers are picking what they grow in the area and fermenting them using the yeasts that live in the area, period. No fancy winemaking techniques to correct the imperfections: just the grapes and the land, naked for all to see.
Why should you try these wines? Well they're probably different to what you normally drink, so if you haven't tried them before you should always give it a shot to know whether or not you like them. If you're a fan of sour beer or gueuze you should absolutely try them because they'll be right up your street. They're also often on the lower alcohol side because the fermentation doesn't usually go as long as it would for a normal wine, so they're nice for when you want a little buzz without getting like, zinfandel levels of turnt. Which is a term I coined just now. You heard it hear first, kids: #ZinTurnt, the new #lit. Lastly, since there aren't a ton of fancy winemaking techniques that contribute to higher prices in wines like Champagne, they're usually pretty inexpensive--so you've got nothing to lose!
some fun ones to try...
Bellus, La Vie en Bulles
I swear I like this for more than the fact it reminds me of one of my favorite songs. It's a sparkling rose made from Pinot Noir in the style of Bugey-Cerdon, a region near Beaujolais in France that is known for ancestral method sparkling rosés. This particular label is run by Jordan Salcito, a brilliant lady-somm that couldn't find the kind of wines she wanted to drink on the market...so she made her own! The winemaker for this particular blend is Michael Cruse, a well-loved sparkling winemaker in Northern California.
Old Westminster, Albariño Pet-Nat
This winery is run by three siblings in Maryland. They're all in their 20s and are super cool people that I had the pleasure of meeting a few weeks ago when they visited SF. This wine is awesome because in Maryland not many people are growing Albariño (a traditionally Spanish varietal) and basically no one else is making a pet-nat out of it. It was definitely an out-of-the-box idea but it paid off for sure because this wine is delicious. I'm a sucker for floral wines and this one smells and tastes like walking through a gorgeous garden in spring without being sweet or overbearing. All I want is to drink it on a patio in the sunshine.
Furlani, "Macerato", Vino Frizzante
This wine is as natural as it gets. It's a field blend (i.e. they picked what was growing and fermented it all together rather than doing each grape separately and blending intentionally) from a biodynamic vineyard (i.e. organic on steroids) fermented with native yeasts and bottled without fining or filtering. It tastes like it looks--kind of like pink Vitamin Water, but it has a tangy yeasty note that gives it character and makes you want to go back for another sip. Another total porch-pounder!