On an unusually mild 70-degree day in March, our local wine group gathered at my home for a tasting of sparkling wines from around the world. The tasting included the usual sparkling suspects: Champagne from a big house and a small grower, a Cremant from the Loire, a Cava, the requisite California fizz, New Mexico’s finest, a Trump, a Thibaut and a cool new local wine — Virginia’s first commercially-available pét-nat.
Short for pétillant-naturel, pét-nat is a lightly sparkling wine made via the ‘ancestral method’ (or ‘méthode ancestrale‘), which is thought to predate the better known traditional method used to make Champagne.
Unlike the traditional method (also called méthode traditionelle or méthode champenoise), where a mixture of still wine, yeast and sugar (liqueur de tirage) is added and secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, wine made via the ancestral method is bottled and capped before primary fermentation is finished, without the addition of secondary yeasts or sugars.
Allowing initial fermentation to finish in the bottle gives pét-nats a gentle effervescence from the trapped carbon dioxide.
Sometimes referred to as ‘Champagne’s trendy little sister’ or ‘hipster sommelier’s love-child,’ pét-nat wines have been fashionable in wine geek circles for several years and are found on some of the trendiest wine lists in the U.S.
Although ancestral fizz is produced all over the wine world— typically by winegrowers that align with the natural wine movement in regions like the Loire, parts of California, and even Vermont — the pétillant-naturel trend has not yet caught on in Virginia.
Because of the current grape shortage and other factors like uncertain demand, this style of wine may never be common in Virginia however, Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, VA, added a cool new chapter to the Virginia wine story with the release of the state’s first commercially available pét-nat.
Maya Hood White, who studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis before joining the Early Mountain Vineyards team as Enologist and Vineyard Manager in 2014, is largely responsible for Virginia’s first pét-nat (that I’m able to find).
“When I came to Early Mountain in 2014, I asked if they would be opposed to me trying to make a few cases of Pet-Nat and everyone was supportive,” said Hood White. “I had always enjoyed them [pét-nats] and found them very unique. For pét-nats that are released shortly after harvest, I always view them as a memory of, and very symbolic of, the vintage.”
Wines made in the ancestral method tend to be lower in alcohol, are unfiltered, can be unpredictable, don’t require the same expensive equipment needed for traditional sparkling wine and involve less intervention.
“Pét-nats are definitely lower-intervention wines, which often make for interesting aromatic and taste development, even bottle to bottle variation,” said Hood White. “They don’t have many preconceived notions so there is often something to learn from each bottle, making them intriguing for wine geeks.”
Pét-nats can be red, white or rosé, range in style from dry to sweet, and can be made from any grape variety. Early Mountain’s 2015 is made with 100% Syrah.
“I thought the acid and aromatics of Syrah would make an interesting Pet-Nat,” she said of her decision to use Syrah.
Interesting indeed. Early Mountain’s 2015 pét-nat was popular with our tasting group. Comments ranged from “fun and cool” to “funky” to “different” to “delightful and delicious.”
Early Mountain’s 2015 Pétillant-Naturel, is dry, light pink and slightly hazy in the glass offering notes of tart cherry, strawberry, and clove. A little savory with soft fizz and zippy raspberry acidity. $28. Only 90 bottles made. If you are lucky enough to have a bottle this exciting new addition to the Virginia wine story, drink it now.
Yet another reason to visit Early Mountain Vineyards.
If you are not able to find Early Mountain’s Pétillant-Naturel but want to explore these funky wines now, look across our northern border to Maryland. Old Westminster Winery recently released two pét-nats — one made from Albarino (just 400 bottles produced) and the other from Gruner Veltliner (1,000 bottles). I’ve not had the Gruner but the Albarino pét-nat is delicious. Further north in Vermont (yes, Vermont!), Deirdre Heekin at La Garagista makes three natural pét-nats from hybrid grapes. Like Early Mountain, both Old Westminster and La Gargista are focused on making thoughtful and innovative wines.
[For more about the history of pét-nat, see Zach Sussman’s article ‘What is “Pét-Nat,” Really?’ in PUNCH.]