The first time I tried a Pétillant naturel, a natural sparkling wine playfully called pét-nat for short, it was from a tiny wine shop, Maine & Loire, that had just opened in Portland, Maine. It was a bottle from Les Capriades, in the Loire Valley, and it was phenomenal. Bone dry and incredibly mineral (the owner of the shop described it like licking a stone), the taut bubbles and clean, refined taste blew me away. How could something so good could be priced so low—and why wasn’t everyone drinking this?
I still get excited every time I come across a bottle of Les Capriades, as it not only introduced me to the exciting world of natural sparkling wines, but also the incredible qualities that these wines possess. Wonderfully fizzy, fancy-free, and at about a third of the price of traditional Champagne, a bottle of pét-nat is reason enough to celebrate at any occasion, from brunch to picnics to an evening aperitif.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is pét-nat?
Pétillant naturel isn’t actually a style of wine; it’s a winemaking method used to make sparkling wines. Bright, colourful and inexpensive, these spunky carbonated wines undergo a process known as méthod ancestrale (ancestral method), the first way sparkling wines were produced.
“Pét-nats are made using one single fermentation” explains Canadian West Coast wine consultant Emilie Campbell. “The wine is bottled before it completes alcoholic fermentation, which then continues in the bottle, typically sealed with a beer cap.” The CO2 created under the pressure of continued fermentation is what carbonates the wine. In contrast, méthode traditionelle (traditional method)—which involves adding sugar and yeast to still wine to trigger a second fermentation and produce bubbles—is the method used to make Champagne.
Originating in France’s Loire Valley, pét-nats have gained significant popularity with the rise of the natural wine and wine bar movement that exploded out of Paris in the late nineties and early aughts. Pét-nats tend to be affordable, simpler and often more fun to drink than their Champagne counterparts.
But make no mistake: Despite their more easygoing nature, these are not your mass-marketed, grocery store bubbles. Pét-nats are still hand-crafted boutique wines, made with love.
What do pét-nats taste like?
Unlike Champagne, where producers often blend vintages and use interventionist techniques to achieve a consistent signature style each year (which is why that bottle of Veuve always tastes exactly the way you remembered it), pét-nats can oscillate drastically from vintage to vintage. They don’t have a specific taste—and that unpredictability is what makes them so fun.
“Pét-nats are usually unfiltered, fuzzy and a little on the wild side” says Ryan Gray, owner and wine director of Montreal natural wine havens Elena and Nora Gray. “They range from steely, mineral and bone dry, to juicy, animal and sweet, and everything in between. They can have big foamy bubbles or have the faintest hint of petillance.”
Unlike Champagne, pét-nat production isn’t fixed to a specific region, either. They’re made all over the world—so this vast category has endless possibilities. “I can say with almost 100 percent certainty there’s a pét-nat made from every grape under the sun,” says Campbell. “There’s a style for everyone.”
When do you drink pét-nat and what do you pair with it?
You don’t need a special occasion to drink a pét-nat, and because it’s Champagne’s more easygoing little sister, any excuse is reason enough to try one out. “It equally works for brunch, or a warm summer evening, but it’s also great with a snack as simple as chips, to a spicy Thai meal,” says Campbell. Just be sure to chill it first.
And thanks to typically low alcohol by volume (some are as low as seven percent), it’s a good hot-weather option. “Just be sure when you do pop a pét-nat to drink it out of a proper wine glass to fully appreciate it,” advises Gray. “Flutes don’t do these wines any favours.”
Why are people excited about pét-nats?
According to Gray, they’re part of a greater revolution that has been taking place in the wine world. “More and more, I see clients seeking out wines that are natural or low intervention,” says Gray. “Wines that are alive and convey a sense of place. I don’t believe that wine is meant to be scary or elitist, it’s meant to be enjoyed, shared, and ideally, natural. No wine embodies this philosophy more acutely than a pét-nat.”
Where can I buy pét-nats?
Any restaurant, wine shop, or wine distributor with a focus on natural wine should be well stocked with pét-nats. You can also buy them straight from winemakers here in Canada, or ask what’s available at your local SAQ or LCBO.