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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The First Barrels

Never did I think, even when I first got into wine writing — first stepped into an expansive vineyard with a notebook and pen and wondered how the plants I saw, budding in late spring, would eventually translate to the lovely drink in my glass — even in moments as beautiful as those, never did I think: I’ll make wine one day.

How could I, a writer, possibly dream to make wine? Friends I knew who had made wine had worked three, five, eight vintages around the world. I’ve worked harvest for two weeks in France, and done some picking here-and-there in Burgundy and Napa Valley.

But here I am, at the end of vintage (Aussies say “vintage,” versus harvest, and my English is quickly becoming Aussie-fied, you know, mate?) in the Basket Range of South Australia, with several barrels of wine tucked away in a shed, and one sparkling wine already in bottle. We just opened one the other day, and when the bubbles rose up in foam, I was kind of in shock. I made the wine, but the wine made itself sparkling. Isn’t that incredible? I know, I know — it’s all fairly straightforward, fermentation creating carbon dioxide as the yeasts consume sugar. Winemaking 101. But I was terrible at chemistry and physics and all that in high school and university. And yet, I can still make them work to my favor. I made bubbles?!?!? It’s truly awesome.

It’s funny, when you visit winemakers as a journalist, you ask certain questions that you think might help you communicate something, to future readers, about the wine: When did you start picking? Did you de-stem? Tank or barrel? But it’s impossible to really understand the reasons behind the answers to these questions, I think, unless you’ve made wine.

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Making my own wines was a meditation on the meaning of individualism, and of the concept of work itself. Nearly all of what we did, we did as a vintage team — up at dawn to get to the vineyards, all day picking and sorting, then processing the grapes. In the vineyard, we worked alongside a picking crew mostly from Laos and Thailand. Weeks after vintage has ended, I still dream about the incredible food they brought — every day, different dishes — for “smoko,” the Aussie word for the mid-day break.

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But when it came to making my own wines, it was all up to me. Each of my red wines were macerated in open-top, wooden fermenters that I climbed into and jumped on once each day for about two or three days; then, I did punchdowns (“plunging” in Aus) by hand, morning and night, to keep the cap wet. That was the first choice: whole cluster, non-carbonic fermentation. I liked this approach because I could always see and taste the grapes and evaluate whether they were ready to press.

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Next decision: when to press? With the Gamay, I wanted a light and pretty lunch wine, so five days of maceration was plenty. Cabernet Franc was about the same. Right away, I saw how different it was to press Cab Franc than Gamay. The juicy Gamay berries had been a breeze, oozing juice nonstop, whereas Cab Franc’s thicker skins were tougher to crack.

The press itself was also a choice. I opted not to use the modern pneumatic press, and rather chose to use an old-fashioned, small basket press that a friend of ours bought new from Italy. With the basket press, I didn’t require any forklift, no electricity was used, and I could literally do everything all by myself . . . OK, I did need help getting the free run juice out of the barrels, sometimes — we don’t have pumps at the Lucy Margaux winery, instead using gravity and our lungs to transfer wine via hoses, which is super super hard, the most difficult part of winemaking for me. Gravity is something you have to learn to trust and befriend, I think. It’s the same way in yoga, which I’ve practiced for thirteen years — if you feel fear, you’re not working with gravity, you’re fighting against it. My goal is to become at one with gravity — that’s when I’ll feel like a real winemaker. And a yogi, I guess . . .

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I loved the basket press because it was, by nature, a slow process. With each press, I loaded the grapes in bucket by bucket or shovel by shovel, after siphoning the free run into a barrel. This gave me time to think. With the Cabernet Franc and the Sangiovese, it occurred to me that the juice already tasted quite stemmy, from the whole-cluster fermentation. So, I took a pause to hand-destem about 50 percent of the fruit, standing there, beside the press. Why not? There was no rush — the point was to make something delicious that honored the beautiful, organic fruit the local growers had spent much time caring for.

I found the basket press empowering because, now, when I say that I made these wines, it really means that I made them. Nothing was added or taken away, and nothing will be. There’s no need; nothing has the scent of volatile acidity, and the barrels were cleaned well with hot water before being filled.

I don’t claim to be one of the greats just because I’ve made wine one time, thanks to the space provided me by someone very generous. But it was a beautiful experience doing it truly on my own terms, and I’m excited to see how the barrels look in a few months, how they’ll become in bottle, and how they’ll taste when they hopefully make their way around Australia and perhaps the world — who knows! I made the wine to share and be drunk. My hope is they will bring pleasure and transmit the energy of this amazing vintage in Australia — a hot, fast, intense, but also, really peaceful one overall, and a season of abundance, of more grapes than anybody expected, tons of people around from all over the world, and plenty of good wine and food on our communal table.

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Also, editing Terre Issue 2 while doing all of this has been both impossible and amazing. There were days when I’d be up at 5am to go pick, and then find myself editing three articles in the afternoon before going into the winery to help process grapes or clean up. Obviously, I would have preferred to be getting more sleep! But at the same time, there were moments when I’d be reading someone’s work and it struck me as really powerful, more than any other time I’d read or written about wine, because I was literally elbow-deep in the stuff right then. 

For example, in California vigneronne Martha Stoumen‘s interview in Issue 2, she talks about joy and patience in winemaking. She tells Miguel de Leon, “I am a firm believer that you can experience more joy in what you’re consuming when the person making it was joyful in the act of making it. The first time I made wine, I was like a little kid; I got to feel things and feel textures. When I work outside, I’m noticing how the sun hits things, how the smells hit me.”

This quote. How much it speaks to me. I am so happy to have her interview in the coming issue (out next month!). I’ve only met Martha once and tasted a few of her wines and I can say that she is definitely singular and has a message worth hearing.

And then there’s the memoir about harvest at Arianna Occhipinti‘s, by Ashley Ragovin. After ten years of admiring Arianna’s wines, having first been transfixed by them while working as a somm in a fancy Italian restaurant, Ashley finally went to Sicily for harvest in Vittoria. The experience was far beyond what she’d anticipated, and confirmed that wine heroes, or just heroes in general, are a real thing worth having. The connections we imagine between winemakers and ourselves aren’t false.

So much more is in Issue 2. I hope you’ll pre-order a copy soon (or grab one at a nearby stockist, or subscribe). And one day, in the not-too-distant future, you may even be reading Issue 3 while sipping on a glass of wine made by yours truly.

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Learning To Be Less Skeptical About Life In 2018

WHAT A YEAR. Several times, I wasn’t sure I would make it through the sludgy, awful, maddening mess that was 2017, whether the angst I felt was related to the surreal, dystopian political situation; or to the increasingly impossible lifestyle of New York City; or horrific environmental catastrophies that affected people I knew in some cases; or personal quandaries that seemed to mount on top of each other, one after another. Something tells me you probably know what I mean? It was not an easy year.

At some point, I’d simply had enough of it all, and I made some drastic changes in my life: I left New York and lived out of a suitcase for six months, squatting in Paris at regular intervals–that was a good start! And, thanks to SO MANY of you, I started a beautiful print magazine, alongside two women who inspire me endlessly and teach me new ways of thinking. In recent months, I’ve been focusing more on health and wellness–eating less bread and pasta, and consuming wine thoughtfully rather than excessively; have rekindled my love for the outdoors; put aside the often-too-dreary New York Times in exchange for serious poetry, novels, and essays. It’s about self-care, people–making time for being a well-rounded, happy person! Anyone have must-read recommendations? I’m all ears, please share! This novelistic reflection on falling in love, written decades ago by Alain de Botton, was one of the best things I read all year–I can’t believe I never got my hands on it until now. As well, I’ve been really into poetry by Ross Gay and Rupi Kaur, and catching up on Zadie Smith’s recent work. If I get really motivated, I may return to the Karl Ove Knausgaard series where I left off, mid-book-three. We’ll see about that.

this book is life-changing — written decades ago, but timeless! (awesome Chenin Blanc, too…)

Thanks to everyone who made 2017 so special: all of you who supported Terre from its inception; the people who hosted us for events and pop-ups in New York, Oregon, and Sydney (more to come in 2018!); those of you who bared your souls on social media rather than pretend that life is perfect amidst this shit we all experience; friends in Paris who let me sleep on their couches while I edited Terre and shepherded it to print. All of these people give me reason to be optimistic about 2018: we can stay real, we can stay strong, we can support each other so that we don’t lose track of our passions, even when everything seems up against us, and when things like wine, food, art, and other beauties can seem irrelevant in such a troubled world.

There’s much to be excited about heading into the New Year. I’m writing from South Australia, specifically a wonderful nook called the Basket Range, where I’ve been living the reality of natural wine, spending time with growers who have devoted themselves to it over the years; it’s a stark and meaningful change from simply dropping into vineyards for an afternoon, or drinking in urban wine bars. I mean, check out the beauty of this Pinot Noir vineyard at Lucy Margaux–incredible! It’s an experimental vineyard that’s never been sprayed or pruned.

And there are some AWESOME wines made here in the Basket Range, a cool climate, hilly region located in the Adelaide Hills, just above the city of Adelaide. The natural wine scene is strong! I’m slowly getting to know the different growers and winemakers here, and will share more stories as I can. Right now really into some of these:

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Before coming here, I was lucky enough to have a glimpse into some of the other wine regions around Australia, and I look forward to sharing those stories with you all soon! Visiting Mac Forbes in the Yarra was definitely one highlight, and it was also great to visit Tom Shobbrook, whom I’d met in Europe several times, in his home base in the Barossa.

Let’s stay optimistic and positive moving into the new year, as much as we can. That’s what Terre was founded upon: we were motivated to celebrate small producers of wine and food, as well as emerging and talented artists, photographers, and writers around the world–to make our network feel more international, and to strengthen it. We believe very much in critique, but we also want to create a fresh platform for such discussion. In the wine world, it seems that, again and again, we are asking the same, tired questions, and getting already-heard answers, rather than developing a wider range of topics to investigate. There’s no need to recycle points that have previously been made; let’s push forward and work together to challenge old ideas, and see what emerges from that. If Terre can do that, and also provide some enjoyment for people who like to read thoughtful work about wine, food, design, and the world’s most interesting entrepreneurs in these spaces, then I can’t imagine being any happier.

Already, Issue 1 of Terre has been more successful than we could’ve dreamed–retailers in Paris, Copenhagen, London, Sydney, and more, far beyond our home base of New York!–and we are gearing up now to take it further. Stay tuned for details about subscriptions and contributor’s guidelines–sign up for our occasional e-newsletter to be in-the-know!

Wishing you all a Happy New Year! Hopefully with a bad-ass bottle of Champagne. On that note, I’ve got some words up on the Wine Access blog about how to throw a wine-soaked dinner party, if you or some friends need any good party-hosting tips.

Hugs from Down Under.