The swell has been building these last few years, and all of a sudden, a massive wave of pét-nat wines from vintage 2016 are breaking on the Australian scene this summer.
The indicators of what’s coming have been firing all over the place. Bar Brosé in Sydney have started a monthly Pét-Nat Party; established players like Stefano Lubiana are getting in on the action, and then there’s new label The Other Right from Adelaide Hills, where half of their releases are pét-nats… From nothing five years ago, all of a sudden, we’d now need two zeros to count the number of pét-nats made in Australia.
As sommelier Gavin Wright from Bar Brosé recalls, “Winemakers come in to show us their range, and it was only a few years that they started saying, ‘hey, do you want to try this little side project?’.”
What started as side projects a few years ago, have emerged as a serious category amongst wine bars and fine wine retailers with particular interest in natural wines.
“Pét-nat”, short for pétillant-natural, also known as méthode ancestrale, is considered the oldest and simplest method of marking sparkling wine.
Whereas conventional sparkling – e.g., Champagne – typically involves a “dosage” of sugar to dry wine to create a second fermentation in bottle, and thus the bubbles, pét-nats are bottled before the wine has finished fermentation so that yeast may continue to consume the sugars in the bottle and make their delightful byproducts of alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2, ‘the bubbles’).
They’re slightly fizzy, very often cloudy, come in a range of colours, and sometimes more closely resemble cider than traditional grape sparklings.
Current day inspiration for the style stems from France’s Loire Valley.
Gilles Lapalus, the Australian winemaking import from France, made a pét-nat at Sutton Grange in 2011. To my knowledge, he was the first in Australia to do so – at least, amongst this current wave of wines.
Photo credit: James Broadway
“The people I was working with in Macedon to bottle the pét-nat, hadn’t done one before. This year they did nine in the region.”
That 2011 Sutton Grange wine, titled Ancestrale Rosé, was a blend of Syrah (Shiraz), Sangiovese and Viognier. Lapalus now has his own label, Bertrand Bespoke. With it he has a pét-nat made with Syrah, Nebbiolo and Semillion grapes, the latter of which was fermented on skins (“skin contact whites” being another recent trend in whites).
And therein lies the intrigue of pét-nats being made – they’re so idiosyncratic. Whereas conventional sparklings follow the lead of Champagne and are made with a combination of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Munier, pét-nats are made in with all manner of varieties, and in all manner of regions.
In the warm Riverland – the last place you’d go to make a traditional sparkling, Delinquente Wine have made one with Bianco d’Alessano, which is, by the way, from the only Bianco d’Alessano vineyard in Australia. Chenin Blanc pét-nats are being made in from Margaret River to McLaren Vale, by the likes of Dormilona and Jauma. Riesling, from Eden Valley (I’ll Fly Away), to Canberra (Ravensworth), to Tasmania (Domaine Simha), is getting the treatment too. And the list goes on…
The Other Right make four: a red, a white, a rosé, and an “orange” skin contact Viognier, which means pét-nats constitute around half their range.
The possibilities of colour with these wines are the first thing that grabs you; and we do taste with our eyes. Pét-nats bring a new pantone experience to the wineglass – beyond white, rosé and red – they can come in luminous hues of yellow, pink and orange.
And you can taste such contrasts between interpretations… Brave New Wine’s 2015 Little Sister Pinot Noir from Great Southern captures the fleeting grapey and summertime lucerne taste of a fresh red ferment and is brooding by comparison to the daintiness of Yangarra’s 2016 Pét-Nat (Grenache, Graciano & Cinsault) from McLaren Vale, which has a moreish Strawberries & Cream thing going on.
Winemakers are throwing out the sparkling rulebook. Medowbank in Tasmania have blurred lines by blending fermenting-wine back with dry wine to create a second fermentation in bottle which looks more like traditional sparkling, but theirs has a slight bitter tannin finish thanks to skin contact Chardonnay.
This unstructured and anything goes approach is bringing so much joy to wine in 2016.
Pét-nats are universally described as “fun” wines, but cracking the pét-nat code has been a work in progress for the last few years for winemakers.
“Gushing” wines have been an all too common issue. So much so that, although it is far from a pleasant experience to end up wearing half a bottle’s contents on your clothes, you probably can’t call yourself a “pét-nat person” until you’ve lost half a bottle’s contents upon opening at least once. It’s a right of passage.
The source of this is, as Lapalus has discovered, “The carbon dioxide combined with sediment – it creates more effervescence. If it’s clear [ie, there’s no cloudiness or sediment], you don’t have the gushing issue.”
“In 2011, we didn’t need to disgorge. I haven’t been able to replicate that, and I don’t exactly know why. Since then, every year I need to disgorge because there’s too much lees.”
The other trial-and-error aspect has been the amount of “funk” in the wines. The examples seen thus far have mostly been made in a low-fi manner, without the antibacterial properties of sulfur, or aids of other additives, and the wines can develop a little stink from lack of oxygen and/or microbial activity.
As Andries Mostert of Brave New Wine points out, “Although pét-nats are low input, they can be difficult. You don’t want them to be too grubby, or too stinky. So we ‘rack’ [transfer a vat’s wine content] before bottling to give the wine some oxygen.”
Timing is everything, particularly when dealing with a living thing like wine. Pét-nat’s need to be bottled at precisely the right time. Too much unfermented sugars at bottling leads to a build up of too much CO2 and can turn bottles into hand grenades. Mostert has a tale from one vintage that highlights the fortitude of some yeast: “Towards the end of ferment, the glass bottles hadn’t arrived… so I put the ferment in the fridge, to slow it down, only, it had been sent to minus 20! The next day I had an 800 litre solid ice cube! I thought, there’s no way that will start fermenting again, but it did thaw out, the yeast just kept doing its thing, and it kept fermenting.”
All technicalities aside, pét-nats are fun wines. As Wright points out, “Nothing like getting bubbles through the bloodstream to get the party started, right?”
And getting the pét-nat party started has in no small part been the wine loving Instagrammers, who, combined with the “hashtag winemakers” and “hashtag winebars”, created the perfect storm and massive wave that’s hitting the Australian wine scene.
A version of this article first appeared on Executive Style