Making Pét-Nat Is A Bitch (So Enjoy Drinking It!!!)

If you google me deeply enough, you’ll find many published quotes from me, c 2015, along these lines:

“Pét-nat is the simpler, more fun version of Champagne.”

“Because pét-nat — short for pétillant-naturel, as in French for ‘natural sparkler’ — requires only one fermentation, it is easier to make than Champagne.”

“Want something to crush on the patio? Grab a fun, easygoing pét-nat!”

Ohhhhh, how little I knew.

The first statement, I will qualify, is definitely true. But now that I have actually made pét-nat, from grape to glass, having done nearly every single thing minus farming the grapes and some work involving forklifts (forklifts kind of terrify me), I can testify that pét-nat is NOT easy to make.

While it is certainly fun and easygoing to DRINK, the actual making of pét-nat involves intense PRECISION and KNOWLEDGE, coupled with hours upon hours of dutiful, exhausting, repetitive handwork.

If you already follow me, you are aware that I am in the middle of a natural winemaking journey, which takes place in South Australia. I’ve been fortunate to produce some wines under my own brand, Persephone Wines. It’s a wild ride.

Of course, when I was given this opportunity, I thought, I’ll make pét-nat! Because I love nothing more than a good bottle of fizz. So, I am going to share here the process, from start to finish. It will be a long post, but if you bear with me, you’ll have a deep understanding of how sparkling wine is made and why you should really appreciate every bottle you consume.

I know that there has recently been a bit of an Internet drama regarding some California pét-nats that were made in a rather industrial style. There has also, in the past, been debate over the proper definition of a pét-nat. As writer Zach Sussman has pointed out, the term is new, but the style seems to be very old; therefore, pét-nat is a postmodern phenomenon (when the old, abandoned way becomes new and cool again).

Sussman writes that,

“Many of today’s ancestral method wines undergo a technological approximation of this process through temperature control, artificially halting fermentation in the tank via refrigeration. After several weeks, the half-fermented juice is then bottled and the fermentation resumes. Pét-nat, on the other hand, almost always goes straight from tank to bottle—an uninterrupted continuation of the primary fermentation.”

But in many cases, including mine, that’s not exactly true. I’ll explain why later.

Furthermore, Zach says that pét-nat is generally bottled with the “lees” — and then released without disgorgement.

“Unlike many ancestral method wines, which are disgorged in the interest of creating a more stable commercial product, pét-nat is almost always bottled with the deposit of dead yeast intact: hence the style’s signature cloudiness.”

It’s true that disgorgement has typically been associated with Champagne method wines. But many pét-nats today are, in fact, disgorged, and in my opinion, it very much improves their drinkability by making them less explosive.

Sussman wrote that piece in 2015, and I really think that since then, partly because of the success of wines like Les Capriades, a lot more producers now seem to be opting to disgorge. (Les Capriades is an all pét-nat house in the Loire Valley that disgorges religiously, written about very nicely in that link by France-based author Emily Dilling.)

And disgorgement is one of the reasons that making pét-nat is such a bitch!

Read on to find out how incredibly tiresome and annoying (but ultimately rewarding) it was.

Picking the Grapes

Because I am a bit of a sucker for Champagne, I opted to make my pét-nat with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These were picked in the early days of harvest — the Pinot was one of our very first picks, starting on 24 February, and the Chardonnay came soon after.

A wonderful picking crew was employed by beloved, incredibly knowledgeable mentor Anton Van Klopper of Lucy Margaux Wines, and so those of us who were more on the winery crew were tasked with carrying buckets and sorting out any bad berries (there were very few). All organically farmed fruit, by the way. That’s important for making natural wine! Vital! Nothing good can happen in the winery without growers who are willing to farm without pesticides or other chemicals.

(From left bottom corner going clockwise, in the photo above: that’s Alberto, who until recently was the wine director at Racines in Reims; Niki, who has a mezcal brand in Oaxaca and runs dinner pop-ups around the world; Sev, wine director of the Ten Bells; and Rapha, who works for the wine importer Vine Trail in the UK. Amazing people!)

We generally picked in the morning, and then spent the afternoon processing grapes, although sometimes we picked all through the day and then had long, long nights in the winery. Lots of midnight dinners, and then 6am wake-up calls next morning.

Fermentation

Chardonnay was pressed directly at the winery, in the pneumatic press (read: a modern, electrical one — I used this press only for my sparkling wine; all of my still wines were made in an old-fashioned, manual basket press). I took a barrel of that juice for my pét-nat.

The Pinot, however, I decided to macerate (leave on the skins) for a short time, to have color in my final wine, and also because the fruit was too beautiful to press directly. For about 48 hours, the Pinot was in a large, wooden open-top fermenter, and each morning and evening I’d climb into it and jump on the grapes to get the juice flowing.

Then it was pressed, and I transported the juice bucket by bucket to another barrel.

And then, my lovely Chardonnay and Pinot fermented away happily in their separate barrel homes, for several weeks.

Over the course of fermentation, I tasted the two wines regularly. They were beautiful from the start and got better and better. Pinot tasted like ripe strawberries and crushed cherries. The Chardonnay had an incredible minerality to it. When I tried doing a 50-50 blend with the wines, that minerality was lost. So, I opted for 60 percent Chardo, 40 percent Pinot in the final blend. 

And before we knew it, the wines were totally dry!

Bottling

You can’t make pét-nat with dry wine. The residual sugar is what causes the wine to re-ferment in bottle. We didn’t have time to bottle mine, so it fermented to dry. But there’s another way: at bottling, we first racked and blended the two wines, then added some Gamay juice that still had a bit of residual sugar left to that blend.

We carefully calculated the correct amount of Gamay to add (it was a couple of liters, ultimately) based on our target baumé, a French system that measures the density of liquids. We added just enough Gamay to get to a specific baumé that we knew would allow the wine to referment once bottled. The wines were bottled, as is done with nearly all pét-nat, under crown caps. 

About 370 bottles were made. Of course, that’s pre-disgorgement. 

A few days after the wines were bottled, I repositioned them upside-down in a large bin, so that all the lees would sink into the bottlenecks.

Disgorgement

The idea of disgorgement is to simply use the pressure created a bottle of sparkling wine to push out the lees. Many people freeze the necks of the bottles, using a chilling machine. We didn’t do that; instead Anton brilliantly drilled holes into a fermenting bin and we simply opened the wines into that, making sure the liquid was touching the caps as we flicked them open with a regular old household beer opener. It worked really well!

When you disgorge, you lose some wine — the lees come out along with liquid. So, each bottle has to be topped up with more wine before it is resealed, in this case with a crown cap. 

All of this was truly a massive job. Each bottle had to be wiped down carefully with a cloth after it was disgorged. We went though about twenty tea towels doing this!

In the end, though, the wines are cleaner and they won’t explode when opened.

And voilà, that’s pretty much it! I loved the process; I learned so much about the chemistry and physics of fermentation, and all sorts of practical things related to the nature of liquids and alcohol.

I made some other wines, as well — all reds — but none of them compared to the pét-nat in terms of labor and time.

But I hope all this doesn’t deter you from fully enjoying pét-nats! They are meant to be fun and delicious. Now that you know how much work goes into them, you may even enjoy them more.

Any questions or feedback? Leave ’em in the comments.

xxRachel

 

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Weekly Apéro Hour: Little Things, Ploussard or Poulsard or Just Wonderful Wine, Motherhood (The Book)

Welcome to your weekly apéro hour!

After excursions to Spain and Serbia in the last edition of #apérohourweekly, we return to my regular, ongoing consumption of French and Aussie wines! (This is a short one, also, because editing Pipette and bottling spring releases is pretty demanding on time and energy, as you can probably imagine.)

FRENCH DRINKING. Fill in the blank: discovering a good bottle of Poulsard you’ve never had before is: ________________.

(Options include: “like finding a new favorite band” // “better than sex” // “almost as exciting as discovering a good bottle of Trousseau you’ve never had before” // your unique answer.)

Over the weekend, I met a new friend in the form of Domaine de la Borde’s Ploussard (aka Poulsard, the more general name). Poulsard, for the uninitiated, is a light red Jura grape (Eastern FrancE) found mostly around the Pupillin area, and delivers heavenly, aromatic, wine with note of dark cherries or crushed roses).

Domaine de la Borde, I learned from online research, is helmed by a young vigneron who is one of the relative newcomers to the Jura, named Julien Mareschal. As of now, Julien has about 5 hectares of vines, many at high elevation, and in conversion to organic or biodynamic. All of his wines are single-vineyard products. This cuvée, “Brume des Chambines,” (2015) is from a plot of 30-year-old vines on red clay soil, is aged 10 months in tank, and is currently the only (or one of the only) wines that is made completely without added sulfites. It was incredibly light and ethereal, with hints of curry spice and cumin, and an overall savory character. The hue was almost translucent like a precious gem. There was a hint of tart raspberry on the finish.

AUSSIE DRINKING: This yummy wine was made not far from where I am writing, in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia, by a guy named James Madden whose first vintage with his own label, “Little Things,” was just in 2017 (450 cases total). This wine is called “More Than White,” which as you may suspect indicates the use of skin contact to extract more flavor from the grapes.

I’ve had the pleasure of sipping on wines from Little Things before — Pinot and Syrah, of late, both really pure and showing lots of wonderful fruit notes — but this was my first time trying the “More Than White,” made from Sauvignon Blanc, destemmed and fermented on the skins for a few weeks, and zero sulfites added.

And this wine was just a pure delicious bomb: it explodes in your mouth with white peaches and yellow grapefruits, as well as happy, broad acidity that swishes around on the tongue. The grapes were picked early so the alcohol is low (10%), James told me over e-mail (he’s out of town, otherwise I would’ve probably just gone over there!) — and he also informed me that the light rosy hue of the wine comes not from the addition of some red grapes, as I guessed, but from ageing in old red wine barrels! “A case of limited funds/resources starting out,” he says.

Note that if you’re outside Australia, it might be just a bit of a wait before you see “Little Things” abroad, as James is slowly scaling up production. Meanwhile, those of us Down Under will be lucky to enjoy these sumptuous and pretty wines.


READING. It took me a while to process this book, Motherhood, the latest autofictional novel from Toronto-based writer Sheila Heti, whose earlier book How Should A Person Be? was life-changing for me and one of the few things I dragged across the world with me to Australia.

As you can discern from the title, this is a book about motherhood — specifically, it’s about the decision that women make consciously, at a certain point in their lives, as to whether they want to become a mother. Heti constructs a character not unlike herself in real life — approaching 40 years old, deeply focused on her “art” (in this case writing), also deeply in love with a man, and desperately unsure of whether to have a child or not.

The device that Heti employs to move the book along is a strange thing: she adopts a technique from followers of the I Ching, who flip three coins, six times, to get a “yes or no” answer to any question. At first, I liked this, and even found it very humorous in instances where it gets out of hand (the coins lead the narrator to do all sorts of things, like hiding a knife as a response to some weird symbolism in a dream) and then I soon found it annoying, and before long I found the entire book annoying and disappointing because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere except despair, indecision, and self-loathing. I found myself struggling to enjoy reading the book, and also sort of judging the narrator — just have a baby already, won’t you! It’s clearly what you want! Or at least it’s what I, as a reader, want. 

Then I noticed my feelings and realized that I wasn’t really listening to how much the narrator was struggling, and I wasn’t quite getting how difficult it would’ve been for Heti to write this book. It’s a book that grapples deeply with all the complexities of femininity, womanhood, our bodies, ageing, and choosing a creative life. Parts of it, as well, follow the arc that a woman’s body goes though during the menstrual cycle. Maybe my own discomfort was partly a reflection of how much I also live these questions, and of course that same cycle, though in different ways to Heti. Her point, of course, is that each woman is on her own journey, and I was judging her just as the narrator feels judged by women who have babies while she does not.

In the end, I feel that this is a book very much worth reading, although it does miss out on some of the sense of wonder and adventurousness that I found in Heti’s earlier book. Anyway, motherhood isn’t an easy role or an easy topic, so it surely deserves a difficult book.

It’s time to head back down to the winery for more bottling! More soon, friends.

xRachel

From Snowy Paris, Visions of Terre 2 And New Writing On Phylloxera

Greetings from freezing cold Paris! It has dumped snow here, which is very pretty, but I am chilled to the bone after a week of tasting in damp cellars in the Jura and the Auvergne, making my way toward La Dive and the other vin nature salons in the Loire. Expect an update from me soon on the highlights from those events!

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Tasting with François Saint-Lo at Les Anonymes in Angers

Meantime, I’m starting to edit Terre Issue 2, which will come out in May. It’s going to be really, really good; we’re building on our global support and bringing in new writers, artists, and photographers. Tomorrow, I head to Copenhagen to report on one of the world’s most exciting and experimental distilleries, for Issue 2. Announcements are coming soon about pre-ordering the issue and subscribing for the year, and don’t miss out, because we sold out last time and surely will again, even though we plan to double our production. (You can sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know about all this.)

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How to prevent the spreading of phylloxera

I also want to share a story I’ve really enjoyed working on, an updated explainer about the phylloxera pest, with recent reporting from Australia and elsewhere. Everyone who loves wine should understand the history of phylloxera, because it’s affected grapevines and wine production everywhere, and it’s also a really fascinating story of plant genetics that continues to impact winegrowing today. Link is here

Lastly: I’ve done something pretty unusual, and created a sort of “tip jar,” a link on Paypal where, at any point, you’re welcome to send me a bit of cash. When I left New York and started working on Terre, I had a tentative book deal and potential gig writing a magazine column. They both fell through, and then Terre became so time-consuming, that before I knew it I was living on credit cards and sleeping on friends’ couches to save money. Writing about wine isn’t lucrative but I do it because I love meeting growers and understanding the political-cultural histories of wine regions. I was inspired by this excellent piece on the New Worlder site to be more vocal and honest about how unglamorous this job can be. Here is the link to my “tip jar.” Even a five-dollar donation means a lot to me. Thank you!

Off to jump on a call with my Terre colleagues, to discuss artwork for the issue and launch events in May. Thanks for being with us on this journey!