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.
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.
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!
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.
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.