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Ask a Somm: Why Pét-Nat Wine Is Not Champagne

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

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Wine at the Seattle outpost of chef Michael Mina's fusion-y French restaurant RN74 is overseen by lead sommelier and wine director, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen (and he's also a winemaker here). Unsurprisingly, food and drink pair up, and the eatery pushes a France-forward list of Burgundy-heavy wines, in addition to more local small-production selections from Washington and Oregon. Below, Lindsay-Thorsen demystifies a hot topic in fizzy French wine, the style known as pét-nat:

Q: Lately I've been hearing a ton about pét-nat. What exactly is pét-nat and can you recommend some great affordable bottles to try?

Lindsay-Thorsen: Pét-nat is the natural wine movement and hipster sommelier’s love-child. Slang for "Pétillant-Naturel," or "naturally sparking," it is nothing new, so much so it’s original name "Méthode Ancestrale" implies. It is the precursor to the modern Champagne method. Essentially, in the old days, back when fermentation was magic, as opposed to the science which tells us that little yeast cells eat sugar and poop out alcohol and carbon dioxide, wine would stop fermentation when there was no sugar left to eat or it got too cold for the yeast to do its good work.

Pét-nat is the natural wine movement and hipster sommelier’s love-child.

Pét-nat was born out of ignorance and just happened to be pretty tasty. Not long ago there were no filters, enzymes, or high-tech tools to remove and/or inhibit the dead or dormant yeast cells that make fermentation happen. When the fermenting wine seemed like it was done, it was bottled right away. Then the warmth of spring would raise the temperature in the cellars and if any sugar remained left to eat, the yeasts awoke and went back to work. The result was a usually slightly cloudy wine with bubbles. Voilà pét-nat!

Pét-nat is not Champagne, beyond the obvious, Champagne is from Champagnebut how pét-nat is made is also entirely different. There's the famous Dom Perignon quote (which the Champagne marketing machine rather than the monk himself probably wrote) to his Champenoise monk brothers, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!" What he probably said was something more like, "Oh shit! Not again!"

The Champagne region back then made still wine, bubbles were a problem, not a goal. The old glass was weak and corks were often strapped down with twine, which led to injury from flying corks, and shattered glass if the wine re-fermented in bottle. Since then the techniques for capturing the Dom’s "stars" have come a long way.

Champagne is the low and slow version to pét-nat’s blazing hot grill and a quick sear. The key difference is that Champagne bubbles are produced through the addition of yeast and sugar to a bottle of dry wine, which is then coaxed into fermenting again in a sealed bottle, thereby locking in the concentrated bubbles and yeasty goodness. Pét-nat’s bubbles are the result of yeast and sugar left in the bottle from the first unfinished fermentation. It is a quick and dirty approach to locking in some bubbles rather than the years it takes for Champagne to find its way to market. The resulting wines are as different as the processes that make them; refined vs. wild, subtle vs. overt, but both have their place in our glasses.

Pét-nat was born out of ignorance and just happened to be pretty tasty.

The flavors of pét-nat vary from funky sparkling Kool-Aid to nuanced mineral-driven wines. More often than not, a charming touch of sweetness remains in the wine, as the yeast often lacks the energy to finish its job entirely.

Pét-Nat Bottles to Try:

  • Puzelat-Bonhomme Pétillant Naturel, Loire Valley, France ($16): This wine is 100 percent Menu Pineau and one the more regal versions of this wild wine from an obscure grape. Bruised apples and pears enveloped in laser-like acidity à la Extra Brut Champagne due to extended aging after finishing fermentation in bottle. In Puzelat’s style, this wine shows much more focus and less whimsy than most pét-nat.
  • Lise et Bertrand Jousset "Exilé" Pétillant Naturel Rosé, Loire Valley, France ($20): A 100 percent Cabernet Franc wine. Using the red varietal brings a vibrancy and fruity kick to complement fresh yeasty flavors and an herby green peppercorn backdrop. A touch of sweetness knocks out any serious wine pretense with the first sip.
  • Johan Pinot Noir Pétillant Naturel, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($21): Keeping in step with the natural wine movement, Johan Vineyard is biodynamic and their 100 percent Pinot Noir pét-nat is essentially adult soda. A frothy texture and light sweetness hoist up the fruity strawberry and watermelon notes, with a hint of spice.
Have a wine-related question you'd like answered? Hit the comments.

RN74

1433 4th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101

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