Like farm-to-table cuisine, ethical fashion, or adult films, “natural wine” is loosely defined: Mostly, you know it when you see it (or taste it). Natural winemakers tend to abide by ancestral techniques, organic and/or biodynamic farming principles, and, most of all, no manipulation during the process. “People are caring about what they’re drinking now, more so than in the past,” says Sarah Pierre, owner of 3 Parks Wine Shop in Glenwood Park. “But these techniques go back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Pétillant-naturel (“pét-nat”) is one of those techniques. It creates a funky, hazy, sparkling natural wine with ancient roots and modern-day buzz. Rather than adding sugar and yeast during a secondary fermentation, which is how Champagne is made, pét-nats wines are bottled with natural yeast and left to ferment. The result: a sparkling wine with a wildly broad spectrum of flavor profiles.
Pét-nats signify “a return to complex flavors,” a focus on wine that’s interesting rather than refined or homogeneous, says Joshua Fryer, beverage director at 8Arm and Ink, where naturals make up roughly three-quarters of the wine list. Even the size of the bubbles can differ from conventionally made sparkling wine—many pét-nats have smaller bubbles, lending a creamier, softer texture. “They’re fresh, they can be a little bit more fruity, they’re not generally as acidic, they’re kind of cider-y,” adds Pierre. “They’re a little more playful.”
Though some somms are still skeptical of natural wine’s virtues, few are as vocally enthused as Juan Cortes, an Atlanta sommelier who co-runs a natural wine pop-up, Stems, Seeds and Everythang, at Brush Izakaya every Thursday night. Cortes is such a fan of pét-nats that he dedicated the entire month of April to them at his pop-up. He says that you never really know what to expect with pét-nats—and that’s sort of the point.
The dizzying array of results ranges from wines that are crisp and clean to wines with aromas of pencil eraser or barnyard funk. “But then, when you actually drink it? I mean, some of the best sparkling wines I’ve ever had have been pét-nats,” Cortes says. “And I’ve had a lot of really good Champagne in my time.”
Ready to dive in to pét-nats? Start with these.
Marie Thibault 2016 La Roue Qui Tourne Blanc
Look for it at: Ink
A dry Chenin Blanc from Loire with small, velvety bubbles and notes of grilled bread and apricot
Meinklang Foam Somlo
Look for it at: 3 Parks Wine Shop
Crisp, bright, and dry, this wine is made from Hungarian grapes grown in mineral-rich volcanic soil—and, with a relatively low (for wine) 10.5% ABV, it’s perfect for patio sipping.
Frantz Saumon 2017 La Cave Se Rebiffe Rosé
Look for it at: 8Arm
This blush-hued, tiny-bubbled Gamay Grolleau blend offers summer-ready flavors of cherry, raspberry, and strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Fondo Bozzole ‘Cocai’ Brut Rosato
Look for it at: Stems, Seeds, & Everythang, Hop City, or Barcelona Vinoteca
Made from a nearly extinct grape varietal, this sparkling Lambrusco rosé is tinged with flavors of raspberry and pomegranate and will stay on the menu at Stems, Seeds, & Everythang all summer long.
Just remember: These are small-batch products, so supply can be somewhat limited and unpredictable.
This article appears in our July 2019 issue.