Time to cut through the buzz and get right to the details on pét-nat, a natural wine. Up next? Popping open some bottles. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Christina Perozzi
Pét-nats are good, cheap, and bubbly, AND they take the snobbery right out of wine. What more do you people want?
I first met Nadim Audi*, a representative for natural wine importer Selection Massale, when I was leading the beer portion of a class about wild ales and natural wines. The topic was the parallels between the two in terms of flavor, acidity, alcohol content, and perceived dryness, for starters. A Lebanon native via Paris, Audi is just what his namesake belies: audacious, energetic, dark humored...and a genius natural wine expert. He turned me on to pét-nats, and after my first taste, I thought they were some of the most interesting wines I’d ever had in my life.
Apparently that’s not how everyone feels. These wines are misunderstood and not just a little controversial.The Chicago Tribune reported that pét-nats have been called “flawed” and “unstable” by those in the industry. Likewise, “famed wine critic Robert Parker has deemed natural wines a ‘fraud’ and ‘one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers.’” Ouch.
Audi strenuously disagrees. For him, pét-nats and other natural wines are imaginative and innovative; they challenge our modern ideas of what wine should be.
PÉT-NATS Short for pétillant naturel, which means “naturally sparkling,” this wine is made according to the méthode ancestrale. Unlike most wines today, it is bottled before the primary fermentation process is finished and without the addition of secondary yeasts or sugars. It falls into the broader category of natural wines.
Christina Perozzi: What the hell is pét-nat, and how is it different from other sparkling wines?
Basically they are different ways of achieving carbonation in wine. A méthode traditionnelle, the process used with Champagne, goes through two fermentations. You start by making a still wine, which you bottle with an addition of yeast and sugar. That triggers a second fermentation inside the bottle.
Pét-nats, made in the méthode ancestrale, are different. Carbonation in pét-nat is achieved by bottling the wine while it’s still fermenting. The wine finishes fermenting inside the sealed bottle, and the CO2 released during the fermentation dissolves in the wine. Hence the carbonation.
I’ve heard that making pét-nats and natural wines is like playing Russian roulette. What does that mean?
Making pét-nat is fairly straightforward. But making a good pét-nat requires an extraordinary amount of skill, something not always associated with a wine style that is often perceived as fun but not serious.
With pét-nat, once your bottle is sealed, there’s not much you can do, really. Knowing when to bottle the juice in order to achieve the desired amount of residual sugar and carbonation, while ensuring a clean fermentation inside each individual bottle, takes years of experience and trial and error. It’s also a process that starts in the vineyard—something that people often forget about with pét-nat. Bad grapes make bad pét-nat!
Why do you love pét-nats and natural wines?
There is an inherent directness to pét-nat that can be very seductive. In a good one, you can taste the fruit in this very primary, almost euphoric way. But at the same time, the wine carries the flavors of its fermentation and they bring something savory to the mix. It’s also very easy to drink in the morning.
Why do pét-nats take the pretension out of wine drinking?
Sparkling wine, as a category, is incredibly loaded. Big Champagne houses have spent decades and billions of dollars trying to convince us that sparkling wine is a status symbol. It has encouraged us to fetishize it. Pét-nat might be undergoing its own form of fetishization; posting a picture of a bottle on Instagram is probably pretty good for your hipster cred. The best of them are made with the same amount of care that is put into a bottle of Champagne, but they are made with very different intentions. And pét-nat [you can] drink pretty much at any time of the day.
Who is making the best pét-nats?
My favorite pét-nats often come from Touraine in the Loire Valley. There are many great producers in the region, but if I have to pick the very best, it would be Pascal Potaire and Moses Gaddouche of Les Capriades. We import these guys, but they also make the best pét-nats.
Where can I find these wines?
Any good independent retailer, especially those who focus on organic and natural wines, should have a good selection of pét-nats.
*Nadim Audi is one of the organizers behind Chicago’s first natural wine fair, Third Coast Soif (March 24, 12 to 5 p.m.; 1340 West Washington Street), now in its third year. The term natural wines typically refers to wines (including pét-nats) made from grapes that are naturally grown (without herbicides, pesticides, or chemicals) and using native yeasts with minimal other additions.