Pét nat is an abbreviation for pétillant naturel, which translates to naturally sparkling. It refers to a method of winemaking (also known as méthode ancestrale) that can be traced back to the 16th century.
Many believe the creation of the style was most likely an accident. In the village of Limoux in France, monks would bottle still wine before it had finished its initial fermentation. The process would then continue in the bottle, resulting in an effervescent, cloudy elixir.
Lauded Loire Valley Winemaker, the late Christian Chaussard, reclaimed the style in the 1990s, ultimately kickstarting a revival. Pét nat has since increased in prevalence, especially in recent years, earning a reputation for being an on-trend option on the market.
Today, pét nat is a welcome addition to the beverage menu and is an indication of the ethos behind a venue. While it’s nowhere near as widespread as other styles, independent producers are focused on pét nat, experimenting with different grape varieties and minimal-intervention techniques.
Hospitality talks to Michael J. Corbett from Vanguardist Wines about the intricacies of making pét nat and Sommelier Mem Hemmings from Three Blue Ducks about its status among patrons plus tips on how to optimise the wine in venues.
Michael J. Corbett is the co-founder of Vanguardist Wines in Seppeltsfield, South Australia. The brand was launched in 2014 and has seen great success with its La Petite Vanguard range, which focuses on fruit purity. “It’s all certified organic fruit out of the Riverlands, some out of Loxton and some out of Barmera,” says Corbett.
The selection included three pét nats produced last year that all sold out quickly, but a newcomer has just hit the market. The recent addition uses a blend of Italian Sangiovese and Zibibbo grapes along with Tinta Barroca, a Portuguese variety. “It’s a pale Rosé-style that’s picked early so the alcohol is quite low,” says Corbett. “It has a crushed strawberry character and you get savouriness from the Sangiovese and aromats from the Zibibbo.”
The defining characteristic of pét nat is the way in which it is made. While most wines undergo two stages of fermentation, pét nat only has one. “The primary fermentation finishes in the bottle,” says Corbett. “Towards the end of the fermentation, as it slows down and the sugars reduce, you capture it in the bottle with a bit of the sugar and carbon dioxide as the sugar gets eaten up by the yeast.”
There are many types of pét nat, but its overall flavour is determined by disgorging. “If you didn’t disgorge, you’d see all the lees at the bottom of the bottle,” says Corbett. “Pét nats [often] have about 5-7ml of dead yeast cells and other cloudy compounds from the final fermentation which slowly settle after it’s finished. It can add complexity, texture and volume to the wine as it sits because it continues to break down.”
Wines can be disgorged, but the process can be skipped all together, with the lees left in the bottle. “From an ancestral point of view, they weren’t typically disgorged,” says Corbett. “A lot of the hardcore pét nat or ancestral-style producers or punters would expect them not to be disgorged, but there are occasions where they need to be because they gush.”
Pét nat can be disgorged by hand or with machinery. “You get the lees from the bottom of the bottle down into the neck and then you have rudimentary disgorging,” says Corbett. “You can also do it by machines with freezing, which is a complex process. I’ve disgorged half of my pét nats and left half for different reasons. But when I disgorge, I’ve done it by hand.”
Pét nat’s early stages begin in a similar way to any other wine. The fruit is collected and turned into juice in a pneumatic press. “I get a whole bunch of pressed fruit into the tank and I let it roughly settle,” says Corbett. “Apple juice in the supermarket has a clear juice on top and clouds sitting on the bottom, so it gets to that point and then I let it sit in the tank for a day or two.”
The clear liquid is then decantated into another tank where the lees is added and the heavier substances are left behind. “I let it start fermenting naturally at around 14 degrees Celsius,” says Corbett. “It’s just about watching the temperature and sugar on a daily basis to see how the ferment is going; you don’t want it to be too fast or too slow.”
Corbett likes to bottle the wine immediately at around 12g of sugar per litre. “It’s a nice balance of giving enough bubble [without] gushing if I choose not to leave the lees in the wine,” he says.
Vanguardist do not use any added yeasts or sulphur to expedite the winemaking process, which is a practice applied to all the products. “All yeast is either in the vineyard or floating around in the air,” says Corbett. “You certainly could use a Champagne yeast with the natural sugars from the grapes, but we’re not adding any yeasts or sulphur to the pét nats. They’re all preservative-free.”
It can be a waiting game for a pét nat complete fermentation, and the outcome can be unpredictable. “There’s no rule; it’s a real nature of the beast,” says Corbett. “As soon as the wine is in bottle, it could be two months or it could be 12. I’ve been lucky and most of mine ferment early.”
Pét nat leaves a lot of room for creativity for modern producers. With many venturing into the style, there are plenty of examples try and patrons are certainly appreciative of the growing availability. “The packaging is really fun and the wines are super interesting for good or for bad,” says Corbett. “It’s been a gateway for younger people to get into wine.”
Mem Hemmings worked at P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants in Sydney before stepping into the role of beverage director at Three Blue Ducks. As someone who is well-versed in wine, Hemmings says “people have gone pét nat crazy”. The sommelier believes the style has found a permanent place on wine lists in Australia thanks to our affinity for outdoor dining in the elements. “I think that kind of beverage, which is expressive, youthful and exciting, is really well suited to how consumers drink and dine.”
Part of pét nat’s appeal is its refreshing taste and versatility when it comes to when and how you enjoy it. “It’s a great way to start or end the dining experience,” says Hemmings. “It’s often quite flavourful, which means it’s going to stand up well to being paired with food.”
Pét nat also represents the diversity and innovation within the wine community, which is something many establishments are more than happy to showcase to patrons. “One of the joys of pét nat is that it is quite a rustic style,” says Hemmings. “It’s way less measured and weightless, and the winemaker has to really know what they’re doing to nail it.”
Like most sparkling wines, pét nat is best enjoyed chilled, which is why storage and refrigeration is crucial when serving. “Pét nat should be at sparkling temperature out of the coldest fridge,” says Hemmings. “If you don’t have a wine fridge, the food fridge is totally fine.”
Lees and sediment are a given when pouring pét nat, which can create an inconsistent experience when serving larger groups. “You can get variations throughout the bottle because there’s often sediment,” says Hemmings. “The first glass you pour will be the most clarified and then the last one can have all the sea monkeys and tricky bits in it. If I’m pouring it for a table of six guests, I don’t want the first person to have a crystal-clear glass and the last to have all the sludge at the bottom.”
Because pét nat is typically a preservative-free drink, it tends to have a shorter shelf life. The general rule of thumb is that it should be consumed in its entirety once it’s been opened. “You can’t keep it for more than a day,” says Hemmings. “If you don’t sell it during the shift, it’s not going to be showing its benefits the next day. It’s not fair on the product, the consumer or the producer that made it.”
Selling a whole bottle isn’t always going to happen, so Hemmings suggests using leftover pét nat for cooking. “One of the ways to utilise your spent wine is making a reduction for a cheeseboard or just giving it to your chefs to do something with,” she says.
Locality and sustainability are rightfully at the forefront of the industry, and pét nat’s association with the natural wine movement has increased its popularity among conscious consumers. But not all pét nats belong in the natural wine category, with some products made with minimal intervention and others integrating additives and preservatives.
“A pét nat can be made by a commercial winery because it’s just a winemaking method, but it has become synonymous with the natural wine movement,” says Hemmings. “People want to know where their food comes from and are drinking more consciously, and I think pét nat plays right into that.”
It’s typically low alcohol content also strikes a chord with low ABV beverages. “They come in at 10 to 12 per cent rather than 16 per cent and upwards,” says Hemmings.
In addition to being an easy-drinking beverage, pét nat has positioned itself in the wine world as an approachable option for a wide market. “Food and wine are made to be enjoyed,” says Hemmings. “I think the wine industry has been quite prohibitive for a long time and has been revered and put on a pedestal.
“People commonly think you can only drink red wine with your main and a wine isn’t good if it’s not aged, but I am all for pét nats with mains in winter and in summer — drink it anytime you want.”
Hemmings encourages patrons to keep an open mind when it comes to the style. “Drink openly, drink diversly,” she says, “and if you’re approaching it for the first time, don’t have any preconceived notions about what you’re expecting it to taste or be like.”