In recent years, pétillant naturel, dubbed pét-nat for short, has undeniably become the darling of the fine wine world. Though it makes up only a small portion of the booming sparkling wine market, it’s undoubtedly trendy, particularly among young wine professionals and consumers, and can be found fermenting in cellars from the Loire Valley to Texas.
Yet staunch defenders of the category are quick to point out that the style is traced to the centuries-old “ancestral” winemaking method—an argument meant to support the notion that pét-nat is not a fad but a sparkling wine category that’s here to stay. But while mainstream publications such as Esquire and Bon Appétit now feature stories on pét-nat, the term pét-nat was largely unheard of just a decade ago, even within the U.S. wine trade. Where did pét-nat really come from—and can its integrity hold up as its popularity increases?
There is no legal classification for pétillant naturel, but it’s widely defined as a sparkling wine made using the méthode ancestrale, or ancestral method for the production of sparkling wine. The process mandates that the wine undergo a single fermentation, requiring the winemaker to bottle and cap the wine before it has stopped fermenting; the remaining sugar is converted into carbon dioxide by yeast, creating pressure and effervescence. The wine may or may not be disgorged.
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Some posit that pét-nat, in addition to being made in the méthode ancestrale, should also be made with a “natural” philosophy throughout: using organic or biodynamic grapes, little intervention, and no additives. “I would say the spirit of pétillants naturels,” says Pascal Potaire, the proprietor of Les Capriades in Faverolles-sur-Cher, France, which specializes solely in Loire Valley pét-nat, “is to stick more to the spirit of organic production of grapes, and therefore to add nothing to produce the bubbles.”
However, that isn’t always the case. As long as the wine is made in the méthode ancestrale, it’s a pét-nat. “It’s the same thing,” says Potaire. In fact, the official name for pét-nat in France is Méthode Ancestrale because the name pétillant naturel is not allowed on labels.
The origin of pét-nat is thus intrinsically linked with the origin of méthode ancestrale. While it may have come back into fashion recently, the process, as its name suggests, dates back nearly 500 years, several centuries before winemakers understood fermentation or knew how to induce secondary fermentation in the bottle, à la méthode Champenoise.
According to the Syndicat des Vins AOC de Limoux, in the 1500s a monk at the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Hilaire in Saint-Hilaire, France, noticed that his bottled and sealed wine had formed bubbles. The wine had most likely stopped fermenting in cold winter temperatures, been bottled, and started fermentation again when the weather warmed in the spring—the same way, incidentally, that the first bottles of sparkling wine in Champagne were made. In this unintentional way, the méthode ancestrale—and therefore pét-nat—was born.
An eerily similar situation marked the revival of the méthode ancestrale centuries later, after it had been superseded by other methods of making sparkling wine. In the early 1990s, the late Christian Chaussard, who then had an estate in Vouvray, found that one of his wines with some residual sugar had begun re-fermenting in bottle. After tasting this accidentally fizzy wine, Chaussard researched the méthode ancestrale and began experimenting with the process.
“This movement was followed, little by little, by winemakers in contact with [Chaussard],” says Potaire, who didn’t transition Les Capriades’ focus to pét-nats until 2011. “It took a few years to see the movement grow, but then there was a snowball effect.” In the 1990s, Loire Valley winemakers including Thierry Puzelat, Hervé Villemade, and Domaine Mosse all began experimenting with pét-nat as well, adopting that name after Chaussard coined it. “The first generation of pét-nats was really [made] among that tight-knit group of friends in the Loire,” says Jules Dressner, the proprietor of Louis/Dressner Selections, headquartered in New York City, which imported many of the first pét-nats to the U.S.
Dressner says Louis/Dressner first imported Chaussard’s pét-nat in the early aughts, when he was still in high school. “At the time,” he says, “we only had a handful of customers for the sulfur-free, Vin de Table Loire esoterica, so it was very grassroots and self-contained.”
Talitha Whidbee, the owner of Vine Wine in Brooklyn, a shop that hosts an annual pét-nat week, carried her first pét-nat when she opened the store in 2005. It was a Gamay-Grolleau blend by Pascal Pibeleau, who no longer makes wine under his own label—called La Perlette, it quickly became a favorite of shoppers, although the wine’s popularity didn’t depend on the name pét-nat. “Nobody even knew or told me it was pét-nat,” says Whidbee. “I don’t think we even had the vocabulary for that.”
By 2010, pét-nat production started spreading rapidly across France, according to Dressner, and around five years ago, it became more common to find pét-nats made in other countries. Andrew Jones, the winemaker of Field Recordings in Paso Robles, California, began experimenting with the style in 2015. “With the high cost of producing traditional method wine,” he says, citing the costs of aging and labor, “pét-nat is our best chance of making a craft sparkling wine product that’s affordable.” Sales of both Field Recordings’ pét-nat and pét-nat in general have been growing over the past five years, and Jones predicts that the wine will become more mainstream in the near future.
Dressner says that the category became more popular among trade professionals and consumers in 2013 or 2014—and now it’s ubiquitous. Whidbee has noticed far more recognition of the category since that first bottle of pét-nat sat on her shelves nearly 15 years ago. “I think consumers fully understood pét-nat about two years ago,” she says. “It’s only in the last six months that we have very novice consumers asking for it.”
Its appeal, many say, is that pét-nat is fun, fresh, and low in alcohol—it’s an easygoing wine that winemakers drink while making their more serious wines. “It’s unpretentious and not meant to be taken that seriously,” says Dressner, “which coincides with overall shifts in attitude and wine consumption.”
An increasing affinity for natural wines, sparkling wines, and low-alcohol wines, particularly among millennials, may also be bolstering pét-nat as a category. “It’s a very noncorporate, small-production, craft product,” says Jones. And don’t even think about calling it a fad—according to trade members from all sides of the industry, pét-nat is here to stay. “Nobody asks if any other method of winemaking is a fad,” says Whidbee. “Nobody asks if nouveau wines are a fad; they accept them, but sometimes pét-nat is denigrated as a joke.”
But with the growth and strengthening of pét-nat as a category, it’s important to consider the potential negative ramifications consequences of its popularity. In the U.S., no legal labeling stipulations are mandated for wines called pétillant naturel.
“Pét-nat has morphed into a style descriptor for something cloudy and funky,” says Christy Frank, a partner at Copake Wine Works in Copake, New York, “perhaps even to the point where I fear there are cases of wines made to look like pét-nats that aren’t made using the méthode ancestrale.” Indeed, Las Jaras Wines, based in Sonoma, California, received backlash on social media in April 2018 after a wine writer noticed that its 2016 Pétillant Naturel was not, in fact, made using the méthode ancestrale. The 2017 vintage is now labeled sparkling wine.
But pét-nat’s popularity among consumers will most likely ensure that its production will continue to be watched. “It has immense marketability, which is scary,” says Whidbee. “I expect a Yellow Tail pét-nat any day now.”
Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.com, VinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.