As gentlemen with great taste and the thirst for the next best thing, we’re always on the lookout for a drink that will excite not just us, but those that we introduce to it as well. Well, we’ve found that in Pétillant Naturel, a style of sparkling wine that is unpretentious, delicious, and outdates its more popular cousin, Champagne, by quite a bit.
Pétillant Naturel wines (Pétillant being French for “sparkling”), more commonly known as Pét-Nats, are created in the méthode ancestrale (ancestral method). If the method’s name didn’t give it away, Pét-Nats are some of the oldest sparkling wines out there and, as they say, are having a moment. (If we have anything to do about it, though, it’ll be more than just a moment.)
To learn more about Pét-Nat and why everyone should be ordering it next time they’re on a hot date, we spoke with Phil Johnson, Sommelier of Gloria, which is located in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.
First, it’s important to understand a how it’s made.
“Méthode ancestrale wines become sparkling not by adding yeast and sugar (as in Champagne), but by capturing the bubbles produced by fermentation from the already existing wild yeasts on the grapes, and the sugar in the grape juice,” Johnson says. This process creates a wine that is light, fizzy, and utterly drinkable (we won’t judge if you do it right from the bottle).
Some of the first evidence we have of sparkling wines dates to 1531, when some Benedictine monks documented making a sparkling wine that they called Blanquette de Limoux. It makes sense when you think about it. If you were cooped up with a bunch of dudes in a monastery, why wouldn’t you make booze?
Flash forward about a century, Johnson says, and you meet English scientist Christopher Merret, who was responsible for documenting the addition of sugar to bottles to create a secondary fermentation in wine (this would create a drier wine with more and finer bubbles and a higher level of alcohol). At the same time, glassmakers were creating bottles that were more explosion-proof than their predecessors. It was about this point that the Benedictine monks, again, take the lead in sparkling wine knowledge, led by a monk named Dom Pérignon (yes, he was a real person).
So, if they came first, why wouldn’t they be more popular stateside? Easy, Johnson says. Pét-Nats never took off because we Americans drink whatever other Americans are drinking at the time (or whatever the celebrities that Americans follow on Instagram are drinking). For example, in the Colonial era, this was rum and cider. Skip ahead to the 1990s and that manifested itself (and still does, to an extent) in all things vodka. When you look specifically at why Champagne won out, it boils down (bubbles up?) to marketing.
“Champagne houses were very good at branding themselves. It was a luxurious product that was affordable, the bottles and logos were glamorous. Those who were drinking Champagne were glamorous,” Johnson says.
To look at the bright side, the benefit is that Pét-Nats are affordable, especially compared to some of the astronomic prices at various Champagne houses. You can easily find a number of different bottles all under $50.
Going along with the affordability, the wines themselves, Johnson says, are much more approachable than other sparkling wines. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a summer barbecue, or you watching the snow fall at your local joint in the East Village, Pét-Nats make the perfect companions.
“These wines are not buttoned up or serious, and neither should the food be that you’re enjoying them with be,” Johnson elaborates. “Think raw bar, meats and cheese, snacks, paté, pickles, vegetables that you eat with your hands.”
Basically, if you’re in a place where you can eat everything with your hands, you’re golden.
As for which Pét-Nats to try, a good place to start (according to Johnson) would be the “grandfathers” of the modern Pét-Nat movement, which started in the 1990s. These producers are Thierry Puzelat and Christian Chaussard of Domaine Le Briseau, and Pascal Potaire of Les Capriades.
“These winemakers are located in the Loire Valley, the epicenter of Pét-Nats, and employ grapes like Chenin Blanc, Gamay, Grolleau, and Pineau d’Aunis,” Johnson adds.
If all of this sounds good to you, now is the perfect time to get in on the Pét-Nat movement. The more people interested in the wine, the better, according to Johnson.
“I’d like to hope that people are bored of mass produced anonymous and forgettable Prosecco. I hope that we can all take a stand against insanely overpriced Champagnes made by corporations,” Johnson says.