I will never forget my first encounter with pétillant natural (pét-nat, for short). Early in my wine writing career, I participated in a virtual education platform. There I met a wide range of wines, from Wisconsin to Vermont, Slovenia to Turkey. The one that never let me go was La Garagista’s appropriately named Coup de Foudre, one of Deirdre Heekin’s earliest pét-nats.
This was a new experience for me. Crafted from an unfamiliar grape, cloudy in the glass, and redolent of spring flowers and tart apples mingled with bee’s wax and bitter hops — it was rustic yet intriguing, dense and textural, surprisingly refreshing, and impossible to put down.
That being 2014, I chalked up my unfamiliarity with the style to my own limited exposure to the wider world of wine. Turns out, I was not alone. Around the same time, Rae Wilson, sommelier, winemaker, and owner of Wine for the People in Austin, Texas, attended a wine tasting that included offerings of col fondo, a traditional, unfiltered, bottle-fermented style of Prosecco. The bottle shots she shared with fellow winemakers were met with bewilderment: “People buy this wine?!”
Today, pét-nat and col fondo have been joined by piquette, a low-alcohol wine made by adding water and sugar to the second pressing of grape pomace, and hybrid-style sparklers — a category I think of as “funky bubbles.” These styles date back as far as ancient Rome, begging the question — what is pushing U.S. winemakers and consumers to embrace them now?
Time to Get Funky
Drew Baker, co-owner and vigneron at Old Westminster Winery in Maryland, first encountered méthode ancestrale in the Loire Valley. In 2014, after eloping with his now wife Casey, they traveled there for a wine-soaked adventure. During a stay in Vouvray, Baker hit it off with the proprietors. “They spoke English well, so we got to talking, and the next thing I knew, they had pulled out a special bottle of sparkling chenin blanc they don’t sell, making only a few cases to drink and share.” The couple explained the wine as an “ode to tradition — just grapes, nothing else.”
Pét-nat is bottled prior to the completion of fermentation, resulting in a kiss of sweetness, low alcohol, and delicate effervescence from the trapped carbon dioxide. Traditionally, nothing is added or taken away. The characteristic cloudiness comes from unfiltered lees. Although simpler to produce than méthode Champenoise, the outcome can be unpredictable, even volatile.
Baker says he “takes inspiration from the old world and puts our stamp on it.” He extends this thinking to piquette and a riff on col fondo, which he calls the “OG” of Prosecco.
Col fondo simply means “with its bottom,” and Baker nods to heritage by not disgorging the lees from the bottle, and instead of using the classic Prosecco grape glera, builds the blend on a backbone of pinot gris. “We are channeling the inner-Italian countryside farmer in that we just work with the grapes that are here and make it in this rustic style, like a farmhouse frizzante,” he notes. What remains is about a half-inch of sediment, which can either be incorporated into the bottle or carefully decanted to leave the sediment behind.
We Need the Funk
While Old Westminster Winery found its inspiration in the old world, Wilson suggests ancient sparkling wine methods offer a “democratization of the winemaking process.”
Méthode Champenoise, invented in 17th-century Champagne, was a time-consuming and dangerous operation. Industrialization and modernization increased speed, but also costs, making sparkling wine inaccessible to many small producers and emerging regions. The simplicity of producing a pét-nat, col fondo, or piquette builds a bubble pathway for all producers.
Piquette, dating to the Romans, and pét-nat to the 16th century, are two styles readily accessible to anyone making wine. In Europe, small producers often make the wines consumed in nearby villages and towns. Wilson sees this same reality emerging in the U.S. While massive wine conglomerates dominate supermarket aisles, consumers are turning to smaller, more local producers for unique and interesting wines.
In 2019, Craig Camp, of Troon Vineyards in Applegate Valley, Oregon, discovered that Wild Arc Farm, in New York’s Hudson Valley, was making piquette. As the manager of a newly converted biodynamic winery, Camp saw an opportunity to produce “fun” bubbles, while incorporating his “no-waste” philosophy. Troon’s inaugural bottling is “a mélange of the pomace from whole-cluster pressings for our white and rosé wines,” says Camp. The gentle nature of Troon’s pressing eliminated the need for added sweetener, required little additional water, and finished with a light disgorgement. The result is dangerously delicious low-alcohol fizz and ideal summer refreshment.
Beyond Funky Town
Baker embraces the charm of méthode ancestrale, finding excitement in “allowing the wine to arrive at its own destination.” Wilson has reservations about the potential “explosiveness” of traditional pét-nat, choosing instead to produce a hybrid that is basically a non-disgorged traditional method sparkler. “The end result looks and tastes similar, but technically it’s different.”
Her 2017 Dandy Bubbles was born from left-over dry-fermented mourvèdre that tickled her curiosity. Building on its success, for the next vintage, she used the same technique with an unlikely cuvee of pinot meunier, counoise, and sangiovese. Each subsequent bottling has been different in all but one respect, they are all delicious and wildly refreshing.
Like Wilson, Rachel Rose, winemaker at Bryn Mawr Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, was up for the pét-nat challenge. As part of the winery’s “Innovation Series,” in 2018 she produced her first hybrid of natural and traditional method sparkling wines. With her minimalist approach, she bottles the fermented juice at precise sugar levels for proper pressure. While not fined or filtered, it is disgorged. “I find the significant amount of sediment can obscure the flavors and impair the bead,” says Rose. The taste of this wine from last summer lingers on my palate. I’m still in love.
Some pét-nats have a distinctive, refreshing sour tang. Andrew Jones, winemaker at Field Recordings, in Paso Robles, California, builds on this with his Dry Hopped Pét-Nat. A blend of mosaic and dry hops with chardonnay, the result is a quenching, effervescent sparkler with notes of cidered apples, citrus, and cheese rind. Perfect for beer-lovers, wine-lovers, and cider-lovers
Therein lies the key to the popularity of funky bubbles: it gives winemakers a no-rules environment for experimentation, and the freedom to connect with rustic old world styles in their own way.
Gotta Have That Funk
Is the rise in funky bubbles an “if you build it, they will come” scenario or is it preparation meeting opportunity?
According to Peter Crumpler of Off-Premise Wine Retailer in Chicago, it is likely both. He attributes the uptick in sales to an increase in media coverage and restaurant placement of many new wine styles. With considerable momentum in the natural food industry, funky bubbles are also hardly a stretch for kombucha fans. Additionally, Crumpler sees “a new generation of wine drinkers who are looking for fun things to drink where they can perceive value.”
Baker and Wilson also point to long-time wine drinkers joining the revolution. Wilson notes that an increase in consumer wine knowledge is coinciding with a fresh level of curiosity among winemakers. Hesitation about hazy wines sealed with crown caps is giving way to demand for them.
Crumpler also notes a migration of craft beer lovers into “uncommon sparkling wines.” Michael McAvena, national sales manager of Old Westminster and former beverage manager at Publican and Old Hunter restaurants in Chicago, says that a “skin-contact pét-nat can resemble a funky Normandy cider or equally a fruited sour ale. Col fondo can be almost indiscernible from a strong Belgian white beer.”
These sparklers have become so popular, pét-nat has its own club — ironically founded by a beer lover. Jared Saul launched a follow-worthy Instagram profile, and embarked on two unique collaborations under the name Pét-Nat Posse.
“The first pét-nat I tasted was Meinklang’s Foam, an Austrian, skin-fermented pinot grigio. I thought ‘this is unbelievable, I didn’t know wine could taste like this,’” says Saul. “This style has so much less pretension. Let the grapes speak for themselves, let the wine shine.”