The sparkling wine section of a menu can often read like it’s been spit out by a generator—the expensive Champagne, more affordable prosecco or cava, maybe a wild card of crémant or Franciacorta. The selections tend to feel the same—safe and predictable, consumed before dinner or with appetizers, and generally reserved for celebrations or special occasions. But winemakers, importers, and beverage directors have recently been hedging their bets on another type of sparkling wine: pétillant naturel.
Pétillant naturel is a lightly sparkling wine that’s generally low in alcohol and often lovingly referred to as pét-nat. It usually contains some residual sugar and is made in the méthode ancestrale, a very traditional—and also trendy—way of natural winemaking where the primary fermentation is halted before completion and a secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. Typically, one can spot a pét-nat wine by its crown cap.
“It’s the ultimate crowd-pleasing wine,” says Daniel Souder, sommelier and owner of Cincinnati’s Pleasantry restaurant. “It’s good to have them before your meal; it’s good to have with food, because they are higher in acid, and that, plus the bubbles, is just a good palate cleanser.” Pét-nat is a fun, casual party wine in that it’s easy to drink, Souder says, but it’s not as complex as Champagne.
At Pleasantry, there’s generally one pét-nat by the glass and, depending on the time of year, four to six by the bottle. Some of Souder’s favorite producers include California’s Cruse Wine Co. and Broc Cellars. Pét-nats, he says, lend themselves to great spring produce like asparagus—famously hard to pair with wine—and fruit components in dishes.
Importers are noticing a growth in popularity as well. Tim Gagnon, general manager for Selection Massale based in Oakland, California, explains that the demand has never been higher. “We can’t keep pét-nat in stock,” he says. Selection Massale imports natural wines from small wineries in France and Swabia, a region of Germany. Gagnon says that while they aren’t exclusively focused on importing pét-nats, virtually every natural winemaker has their own take on the style.
“Our approach is to buy every wine the winemaker produces, pét-nats being one of them,” Gagnon says. “For how easy it is to drink, it’s deceptively hard to make well. It’s much more complicated than throwing still-fermenting wine into a bottle, putting a crown cap on it, and hoping for the best, which sometimes can seem like the case.”
Gagnon says of the producers they import, those making pét-nat from the Loire Valley like Les Capriades, Frantz Saumon, and Marie Thibault, have consistently been restaurant favorites.
Fidelma Cunniffe, beverage director at The Florentine in Chicago, tends to favor pét-nats from Italian regions like Veneto. She also mentions Oregon producer Day Wines’ pét-nat Mamacita—a blend that leads with Italian grape Vermentino.
“They’ve been around for hundreds of years and people are kind of just rediscovering them again,” Cunniffe says. They go with a wide range of food, she adds, mentioning antipasti, oysters, and dessert. The bubbles also cut through heavier, fattier foods, like those in the north of Italy. Cunniffe echoes Souder in saying that pét-nats get customers excited about bubbles without the hefty price tag and intimidation factor that comes with Champagne. They make sparkling wine more of an everyday thing, she says, and their lighter bubbles mimic other drinks like ciders, helping to bridge the gap for people who might just need a small push to order it.
The winemakers at Santa Cruz, California–based Birichino, Alex Krause and John Locke, opted to call their pétillant naturel as such to more clearly signify it’s Italian leaning. Birichino’s pét-nat is produced from its dry, still Malvasia wine that’s not disgorged. “Yes, it’s supposed to be cloudy,” their website says.
For Krause and Locke, pét-nat is a festive, expressive, and bubbly wine that doesn’t require such capital-intensive equipment and labor. For a generation of younger drinkers, pét-nat is a style that isn’t far afoot from the bottle-conditioned ales and ciders they’re accustomed to drinking, Krause says. “They are interested in the less-trodden paths of the wine world, looking for authenticity and a closer connection to the agricultural roots of viticulture,” he says. “It has appeal among those who’ve moved beyond the traditional large Champagne house models and are taking a keen interest in grower Champagnes, and the less explored corners of the wine world that historically have been just a footnote—the wines of Jura and Etna spring to mind.”
Krause sees the interest in pét-nat as a phenomenon relegated to larger cities across the U.S.; the corn belt may be a harder sell. However, if it is hand-sold by someone knowledgeable who can explain the wines’ “cloudy, quirky glory,” it is much more likely to be tried, he says.