If you are still thinking of sparkling wines as only to be opened for celebrations and festive occasions, you're doing it wrong. Sparkling wines are versatile, usually food-friendly, and can pair well with any occasion or meal. While it is not entirely uncommon for people to make the mistake of calling any sparkling wine Champagne (I'm looking at you!), remember, it's only Champagne if it is sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. However, there's more to sparkling wine just what is made in Champagne, and we are here to teach you a little something about the beverage and why you should be paying special attention to pétillent natural (pét-nat), sparkling wines made using ancient methods.
So, What Is Sparkling Wine?
In terms of wine production, the sparkling aspect of sparkling wine is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, during which carbon dioxide is released in the liquid, providing the carbonation, or sparkle. In cooler climates, cold weather often stops fermentation before the sugar in wine is completely used up. When warm weather returns it often causes a return of fermentation resulting in a natural carbonation.
Atlanta native Hardy Wallace, winemaker at Dirty & Rowdy Family Wines, recently released his first pét-nat and describes the differences in the production of sparkling wine versus still wine: "The difference starts in the vineyard. For sparkling wine we are picking at different levels of ripeness, a lower brix than what we look for in still wines. We want to maintain high acidity while still getting some development in the fruit at much lower brix. Once the fruit is harvested, we work with it different at the press. We use slower and gentler cycles to extract the juice from grapes. We do this to get a finer quality juice and so we don't alter the pH of the wine with greater pressure. The downside of this is that we get about 30-percent-plus less juice from our grapes in making sparkling wine."
One of the best things about sparkling wine is that it pairs well with many foods and is just fun to drink. "I'd say in the least few years, 50 percent of what I personally buy is some sort of sparkling wine," Wallace says. "When the grower champagne movement really started taking off in the U.S. a few years back, it changed the way we experienced many sparkling wines. Previously, sparkling was seen primarily as a wine of style and technique. Delicious? Sure. Possibly amazing? Sure. But, it was the grower movement that helped showcase the terroir of certain Champagne and sparkling wines. That was and still is inspiring to us."
The growing interest in natural and biodynamic wines over the last decade has also hastened a return to a traditional method of producing sparkling wines, which has lead to the ongoing love among the wine cognoscente for pétillant naturel. In this hands-off method of winemaking (methode ancestral), the wine is allowed to ferment naturally, in the bottle, thus producing a carbonated wine. Wallace describes the process as such: "The first thing to keep in mind when comparing pét-nat and traditional method sparkling wines is that pét-nat is a sparkling wine made from a single fermentation and traditional method is a wine that is made into sparkling wine via a second fermentation. Pét-nat wines are bottled at the tail-end of primary fermentation, causing the last bits of primary fermentation to produce bubbles."
As Eric Brown, owner of Le Caveau Fine Wines says, "Pét-nats rarely see any barrel aging, so they lack the toasty, bready aromas and flavors of many Champagne wines that are vinified in barrel. Pét-nat is generally more fruit and/or mineral driven and less heady than Champagne and other traditional-method sparkling wines." Another upside to drinking pét-nats is that they are usually easy wines to drink and match well with a variety of cuisines, from spicy Sichuan to seafood and summer grilling. Brown also likes the fact that "pét-nat is typically lower in alcohol and a lot of them are made with no sulfur addition, so the wines are very ‘glou-glou' (chug-able) and are virtually hangover free."
Sommelier Jordan Smelt of Cakes & Ale and Bread & Butterfly describes the attraction to pét-nats as such: "These are the punk rock wines of the sparkling world. Brash, exuberant, and undeniably unique, they're equally perfect for the dedicated Champagne connoisseur looking to try something new and an inexperienced wine drinker just getting into bubbles. Plus, they tend to cost you far less coin than a bottle from Champagne.
"The fun of pét-nat and method ancestral sparklers is their unpredictability. Often single vintage and even vineyard specific, the wines can be radically different from year to year. Also, since they're not required to be composed only of chardonnay, pinot noir, or pinot meunier, you find wines with remarkably different flavors and textures than wines from Champagne."