I’m usually hard-pressed to decipher the hot thing in wine in any particular year or season. But I’m pretty sure this summer’s winner would be Pet-Nats, the J-Lo abbreviation of Pétillant Naturel. (That’s French for naturally sparkling.) It’s everywhere these days, and even being made locally nearby in Maryland. Most casual wine drinkers haven’t heard of it before, and many winemakers are embracing it as a fairly easy way to make something new. But in the case of Pet-Nats, “new” is actually about 1500 years old.
[You know I get excited when I get to wonk out a little. So be warned, that’s what happens here. I hope it’s still understandable, but sometimes you can’t take the engineer out of me…]
The earliest written record appears to be from 1531 in a monastery in southern France, although it certainly could have been produced before that date in some non-religious context. We’ve all had bottles of what’s supposed to be still wine that tasted a little fizzy when we opened them. That’s because fermentation still occurred once the wine was in the bottle, producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. The CO2 trapped in the bottle gets released when the bottle is opened, creating bubbles. Normally we think of fermentation as happening exclusively over a period of two weeks or so and then it’s done. But fermentation continues – albeit slowly – over months. Bottling the wine while it’s still fermenting, even just a little bit, can result in wine with some fizz.
That’s where the “Naturel” part comes in, since the winemaker isn’t adding yeast to grape juice that’s already fermented into wine, as gets done with champagne. It’s an easy leap to think that somewhere along the line a winemaker decided to make the process a bit more systematic. Controlling the amount of fermentation taking place in the bottle can lead to frothy sparkling wines, or wines that have a tiny bit of fizz. Temperature and the amount of yeast on the skin of the grapes are the main variables. These days winemakers have more control, particularly of temperature. But certainly not back in the middle ages. You had to be able to count on Mother Nature, who might not have cooperated. So these wines made by what is now called the Ancestral Method, or Méthode Ancestrale, could be variable.
No doubt this is why the Champagne Method, or Méthode Champenoise, was developed. Adding a dose of yeast and sugar to already-fermented wine to generate CO2 is a good way to control the foam and also add some yeasty flavor. There were still a lot of variables in the Champagne Method once it became more widespread, but at least you could tame Mother Nature somewhat. It also helped that the vast underground caves of the Champagne region made for a constant-temperature environment not always available in the south.
Despite the difficulties, Méthode Ancestrale never went away. And once winemakers had access to good temperature control and various yeasts, it became easier to make Pet-Nats. It’s still possible to find Pet-Nats made as close to the old ways as possible – only yeast from the grape skins, minimal bottle aging, and no filtration. It makes a cloudy sparkling wine. These days, though, most Pet-Nats get filtered to make them a bit clearer. Some Méthode Ancestrale wines may have yeast residue removed the same way it gets done in bottles of champagne instead of by filtration. That, of course, makes it more expensive.
While Pet-Nats usually don’t undergo much aging in the bottle, there are ways of aging them before release. For example, taking the bottle down to 40 degrees F right after filling will stop fermentation by deactivating the yeast. Holding the bottles at that temperature for a few months, or up to a year, gives the wine a little aging and yeast contact. Then, the bottles get slowly warmed to cellar temperature. The fermentation resumes, creating the CO2. This process is something that would have happened naturally in the past, given the right weather conditions.
Pet-Nats are lower in alcohol than champagne and usually have some residual sugar. How much depends on the sugar in the grapes. That’s usually a function of how early they’re picked. It can’t be too early, because then they’re not ripe enough. But since the wines are usually pretty light-bodied, the sweetness doesn’t taste cloying or syrupy. They also don’t have the buttery taste that comes from a secondary process called malolactic fermentation. This happens in many still wines and champagnes, but not in Pet-Nats, so they’re cleaner-tasting.
So why are they so popular these days? I think it’s partly because they’re the wine that’s most like craft beers. Winemakers can experiment with Pet-Nats pretty easily, with minimal equipment beyond the sturdy bottles necessary for sparkling wines. Harvest the grapes in August, and you can have a decent Pet-Nat in February. (Red Pet-Nats will probably take longer.) And the low alcohol level – anywhere from seven to 11 percent – makes them pretty quaffable.
A winning combination. And it leaves the door open to make sparkling wines out of grapes you wouldn’t normally see in those wines. I’m looking forward to seeing what people come up with for the 1500th anniversary in 2031.
Of course, a big reason for writing this post is that First Vine carries two Pet-Nats, from Domaine la Croix des Marchands near Gaillac in southwestern France. Jérome Bezios, the winemaker, used to call them Méthode Gaillacoise, since they’re AOC Gaillac wines. But he switched to using the name Méthode Ancestrale a few years ago. He’s a pretty traditional winemaker, so I haven’t broached using the term Pet-Nat with him yet. Maybe in a couple of years…
The wines are made from Mauzac, one of the oldest indigenous varietals in France. There’s a demi-sec and a brut (both $18). As I mentioned above, both have some residual sugar. (Even the brut, which is defined as containing up to 30 grams/liter residual sugar – at that level you’ll certainly taste sweetness.) The brut is made from grapes picked earlier than the demi-sec, but still mature enough to have good flavor. The demi-sec is definitely sweeter, but Mauzac has enough acidity so that the wine’s not cloying even when it’s riper. And the extra hang-time on the vines makes the grapes more fragrant. So you really can’t go wrong with either. Both are certified sustainable by Terra Vitis, a French agricultural organization.
The residual sugar makes most people think of dessert wines, which you can certainly do with either. But in and around Gaillac you’ll find people drink them as an aperitif with snacks. They’re both food-friendly wines. So this time I’m recommending a Hungarian-style cheese spread that I recently rediscovered. I used to see it around a lot when I was a kid, but hadn’t in a while. A shame, because it’s really good.
Liptauer is a Hungarian cheese. It’s sort of like cottage cheese but with a little bit more tang to it. You may be able to find Liptauer cheese or, more likely, a spread made from it, at a good deli. But the spread is easy to make yourself and you can control what’s in it depending on what you like. When I looked up recipes, I found some made with butter and some with cream cheese in addition to the cottage cheese. The cream cheese adds tang, but the butter makes it a little richer. I decided to use both. Many recipes tell you to strain the cottage cheese to make it smooth. I just blitzed it in the food processor instead, which I recommend you do, too. But almost all the recipes said to combine the ingredients with an electric mixer rather than using the food processor. It makes the mixture creamier. So, sorry to make you dirty up both appliances, but it’s worth it.
The cheese/butter mixture is flavored with paprika, caraway, and capers. It’s definitely worth buying a new small jar of paprika if don’t remember how old the stuff you have at home is. You don’t use much of it, but the fresher the better. I also decided to coarsely crack the caraway seeds for more flavor.
I found some recipes use chopped up cornichons in there – the French pickles you find on charcuterie platters. If you have some, go ahead and chop up a few. But if you don’t have them, add a pinch of ground allspice to the spread.
Not all cornichons are pickled with allspice, but it adds a nice flavor. Serve it with crackers or baguette slices and pour one of the Méthode Ancestrale wines. You’ll be both retro and hip at the same time!
Serves 4-6 as an apéro
8 ounces small-curd cottage cheese
6 ounces softened cream cheese
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1-1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika, plus more for sprinkling on top
1 teaspoon caraway seeds, coarsely cracked
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
A pinch of ground allspice
3 tablespoons drained capers, chopped
Optional: 2 or 3 cornichons, chopped – use only 2 tablespoons of capers and omit the allspice
Blend the cottage cheese in a food processor until smooth. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the cream cheese and butter until very smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the cottage cheese, then add the 1-1/2 teaspoons paprika, caraway, salt, pepper, and allspice and beat until well-combined. Stir in the capers by hand (and cornichons, if you’re using them). Scrape the mixture into a nice bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours, although it’s more flavorful if you leave it in the fridge overnight. Sprinkle with a little more paprika before serving.