All About PetNat, The Other French-born Sparkling Wine
Pétillant-Naturel, or “PetNat” for short, is French for “naturally sparkling” and refers to a wine style made using the Rural (or Ancestral) Method of Sparkling Wine production. I'd like to teach you a bit about what makes PetNats special and different and why you should try them!
Alcoholic fermentation refers to the process whereby ambient yeast on grape skins will consume the sugars in grape juice. The by-products of this process are CO2 gas and alcohol. That is the essence of how wine is made. Still wine production allows the CO2 gasses to escape into the atmosphere. But to make sparkling wine, you have to trap those gasses.
If you were to chill the must (fermenting grape juice) to pause the fermentation, and bottle the wine before fermentation had completed, you would have a PetNat. When temperatures rise again, the yeast would wake up and resume the fermentation process, trapping the CO2 in suspension in the bottle and creating a PetNat sparkling wine!
In fact, that is how sparkling wines first came to be historically, by accidentally bottling the wine before fermentation had completed. And the monks of Limoux in Southern France began doing this intentionally 100 years before Champagne figured it out! That is why I like to say “PetNats are the OG sparkling wine.”
PetNats are not just a style of wine but a culture; it’s one associated with natural, low intervention, experimentation, fun and funky. This extends from the fact that there are no added sugars or yeast and there is an inherent unpredictability in allowing the fermentation to complete in the bottle without any opportunity for the winemaker to make tweaks or corrections. You’re never entirely sure what will come out, or if it will be consistent from vintage to vintage, even bottle to bottle! Hence, as a culture we usually see winemakers take this one step further and use organically grown grapes and avoid the use of sulfur. If you see “zero-zero” on a bottle that refers to “zero added, zero taken away” and is an entirely natural wine. Not all PetNats are zero/zero but there is a fair amount of cross over. Winemakers interested in making PetNats are usually looking to experiment and have some fun with the wine.
Production and Availability
Since there are no economies of scale and there is some inherent risk in this category, PetNats are made by small producers and are fairly hard to find (check out my latest club shipment though!!). You will rarely find one in a big box wine store. You often have to seek them out from small producers. You don’t usually find a deal but you will find a fun wine no matter what! They are usually priced less than Champagnes however. See a list below of some of my faves!
Differences from Champagne
PetNats have many differences from other sparkling wines, Champagne in particular. Here is a short list of how this category differs from Champagne:
- PetNats are lower in pressure (43 v 90 psi) as they don’t go through a forced secondary fermentation.
- Oh yeah, there is no secondary fermentation.
- PetNats are not aged on the yeast after fermentation.
- PetNats are not fined, filtered or racked for clarity. This results in a cloudy wine.
- There is no added sugar or yeast.
- PetNats are sealed with a crown cap, not a mushroom cap.
- They can be from any region, made from any grape.
- There are no regional or appellation related rules governing PetNats.
- They are intended to drink young, there is no point aging them.
While PetNats are wine made from grapes, they often taste very very different from their still cousins. Due to the use of natural yeast and bottle fermentation they can display a wide range of interesting and exciting flavors and aromas. I heard it said that Champagne is good for our house warming party, whereas a PetNat is good for a house party.
They tend to exhibit a bit more of one of these flavor characteristics than their “cleaner” counterparts.
- Fruity - if the fermentation hasn’t fully completed, there may be some remaining residual sugars in the bottle, causing the wine to have a bit of sweetness and show off more fruit and candy flavors. Always a treat!
- Funky - this is a hard flavor to pin down and describe well. Think of it as being a bit yeasty and wild, unpredictable and not refined as our still wines usually are.
- Sour - PetNats can often be very acidic and produce sour flavors. These are not my favorites, but are desirable for others! Think “sour beer”.
I’ve tried a couple dozen PetNats now. Some I love and could drink on the daily. Others I dumped and found them either unpleasant or far too sour for my taste. These three have been so delightful I want to share them and hope you enjoy them as much as me!
2021 Cote West PetNat of Sauvignon Blanc: Think lychee, elderberry, green apple, pear and nectarine with some notes of brioche from the yeast influence. This wine is slightly sparkling with a delightful creamy texture and bright acidity. I love this wine on its own but if I were going to pair it with something I'd pair it with a salad with a mustard vinaigrette, light seafood and/or pasta in a cream sauce, big NYC pretzel w/ mustard (this wine gives me wheat beer vibes), aged gouda, baked brie with a tangy apricot jam… so delish! While supplies last!
Donkey & Goat "Lily's" Pét-Nat First made in 2011, this pét-nat is a nice introduction to the style for those used to traditional sparkling wines. Made with Chardonnay grapes, this fruit-and-flower-forward wine has enough earthy, spicy notes to give it balance and intrigue.
La Roue Qui Tourne: A dry and earthy rosé pet nat from Loire Valley France, composed of 100% old vine Gamay. Violets and cranberries galore in this serious, ruby-hued concoction. With an elegant bubble and backbone of minerality, this wine is both easy-drinking and subtly serious at the same time.
Field Recordings Dry Hop PetNat for something entirely different! A bit tangy with some funky hops in there, like an IPA beer.
In summary, I hope you found this learning fun and will be on the lookout for a PetNat next time you are in the wine shop. Don't turn your nose up but take a chance and start experimenting with which PetNats you love!