Pét-Nat is a Wild Creature
(See photo slideshow of the disgorging process below.)
We spent our afternoon popping bottles of unpredictably fizzy wine, and getting covered head to toe. I was smiling so broadly when I did my first one, I got a mouthful of foamy wine. I didn’t mind at all!
Pét-Nat is a type of sparkling wine— fresh, alive, and lightly fizzy. It’s short for Pétillant Naturel, which means “naturally sparkling.” Last fall, we decided to give it shot– we bottled a few cases each of five different batches of wine, just to see what would happen. We really didn’t know how they would turn out. We hoped that maybe one or two of the batches would be yummy enough that we’d want to make pét-nat again.
It turns out it was a delicious experiment. We tasted each wine when we opened the first bottle of each batch– we had to! Part of the job! The “Oh!” of surprise turned to “Oooo” of delight. All five batches we tasted yesterday were bursting (literally) with refreshing fruit and happy fizz.
Why were we spraying wine all over ourselves? Here’s the backstory on pét-nat:
When grape juice ferments into wine, yeast convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. When we make non-sparkling wines, we let all the carbon dioxide blow off so there’s no fizz left. We also let the whole tank settle, so the floating bits of finished yeast and small fragments of grape skin (“lees”) fall to the bottom. Then, when we bottle these wines, they’re non-fizzy and clear.
To make pét-nat, however, we bottle the wine before it has finished fermenting. When the wine finishes fermenting in bottle, the carbon dioxide can’t escape and the bubbles are caught in the wine. Plus, the yeast and the small bits of grape skin and pulp were bottled too. So we leave the bottles upside down for several months and the sediment settles into the neck (see below).
The final step in making pét-nat is to remove that sediment. (Some cloudiness is okay in pét-nat, but we felt that our wines had too much sediment to leave alone.) We freeze the neck of the bottle to solidify the plug (see below). When we pop the cap off the bottle, there’s so much pressure built up that the sediment shoots out of the bottle (video above). Quick as a flash, we put our thumb over the bottle to keep as much wine as possible. (It’s not a perfect process, and some sediment remains in the bottles– a natural part of wine.) Finally, we top up each bottle, re-cap it, and wash the outside.
Finishing the primary fermentation in a bottle is an unpredictable process. Unlike making Champagne (“méthode champenoise”)– in which a second fermentation is started in bottle with a precisely calculated addition of sugars and yeast– the pét-nat process (“méthode ancestrale”) of captures the first fermentation still in progress. It involves some guess work and luck.
The final result is unpolished, unpretentious, and unique each year. Pét-nats are wild creatures. Cloudiness is expected, and they can vary from bottle to bottle even in the same batch. That’s why they’re so exciting!
>> Stay tuned for the release of these wines in early summer.
(Click a photo for a slideshow.)