It hasn’t been that long since the canned wines from Drew Baker at Old Westminster Winery in Maryland surprised me in all sorts of good ways. But when I looked recently at the other samples he had sent, I was less than thrilled. He had offered to send a few bottles for me to try, along with the cans, and I said sure, why not. Hey, I’m an open-minded guy, always interested in trying something new. What Drew didn’t tell me was the bottles he was sending were Pet-Nat.
Okay, I’m a mostly open-minded guy. I have a knee-jerk aversion to anything that strikes me as trendy or shamelessly precious or senselessly popular. In that pile I often find things that self-important writers, preening sommeliers, or unmoored retailers think are the next best and biggest thing. Natural wines. Funky wines. The funkier the better. And Pet-Nat.
Any of the above can be okay on their own, and some claim deep, historical roots. And, when done well, are a refreshing change from the tried-and-true. But, my wariness for these and other new old ways isn’t because I’m an inherently contrary person (okay, that’s not completely true), but because I’m gun-shy. Some of these adventures in fermentation are disasters from start to finish, and too often taste like a tub of yak urine in which have soaked the rags of Lazarus. Just not nice stuff. “Oh, but it’s natural! It’s authentic! It’s the way the ancients made wine!” Right. But, how does it taste?
Not familiar with Pet-Nat, short for pétillant-naturel? Here’s a solid and happily brief description from Justin Kennedy writing for Bloomberg.com in October 2015.
“Pétillant-naturel (natural sparkling) is a catch-all term for practically any sparkling wine made in the méthode ancestrale, meaning the wine is bottled before primary fermentation is finished, without the addition of secondary yeasts or sugars. (This is in contrast to méthode champenoise, the method used to make Champagne and other more-common sparkling wines, in which a finished wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle with additional yeasts and sugars). [European Union rules now prohibit the use of the term methode champenoise, insisting now that such wines be referred to as methode traditionelle. — ed.]
“The ancient method produces a simpler, more rustic sparkler than Champagne, one that is traditionally cloudy, unfiltered, and often bottled with a crown cap (like a beer) rather than a cork. The end product is also unpredictable: Opening each bottle is a surprise, evocative of the time and place where it was bottled.
“Colloquially shortened to “pét-nat,” the wines can be white, rosé, or red in color, making them super-versatile for pairing with a wide range of foods. They vary in carbonation from effusively effervescent to tiny, prickly bubbles. And thanks to those natural yeasts and sugars, most are a little funky but ultimately gulpable, clocking in at around 10 percent alcohol (several degrees lower than most still wines).”
Anyway, I told Drew I’d taste his wines and, even if I’m contrary and close-minded, I’m a man of my word. But Pet-Nat? This stuff better be good.
First to be examined was the albariño. After a few sips I realized that much of what I thought about Pet-Nat had to be reconsidered, if not set aside. A hazy, green-gold in the glass, with a soft and quickly dissipating mousse, this wine is pleasantly (i. e., surprisingly) clean on the nose, with aromas of white flowers, lemon, ripe red apples, and wet stones. The palate mimics the nose. The mousse is soft and restrained, but gives the wine some zippy verve, some real tension and energy. I imagine it would be a treat with a fatty seafood appetizer, maybe with scallops. (225 cases produced)
Okay, so there are some good pet-nat wines out there. Well, one anyway.
Up next was the grüner veltliner. A hazy, pale champagne color, a quick pour creates a gentle mousse that gathers on the rim before settling. Immediately there are refreshing aromas of fresh-cut flowers, pears, green herbs, ripe grapefruit and hints of freshly mown grass. In the mouth there is a stoniness, with flavors of grapefruit pith, pear skins, and bright acid shepherding it all to a long, lingering finish. Terrific concentration and texture from top to bottom. (80 cases produced)
Last but not least, the chenin blanc, which cemented for me the realization that I need to be more open to this style. Mr. Baker has set the bar pretty high, and I’m okay with that.
The color of lemonade or grapefruit juice, this friendly bit of fizz is floral on the nose, with alluring aromas of cut grass, lemons, green apple, and bits of lavender. Delightful, sure, but it’s on the palate where the magic happens.
Good wine is intriguing, causing one to pause and wonder just what the heck is going on. This is a good wine. The mousse brings focus to the flavors and textures in the glass: lemons, apple, hints of the waxy, lanolin notes typical of chenin. These complex and concentrated flavors tumble around each other and grab your attention. Refreshing acid throughout, with a lingering finish that pulls you right up to your next sip. Will be superb with almost any light summer fare — cool salads, cold fish, or chicken dishes. Got a picnic planned? Start chilling. (45 cases produced)
While tasting these wines fell short of a truly Damascene moment, my eyes, and my taste buds, have definitely been opened. I’ll probably retain my preference for traditional method sparkling wines, but I’ll be curious going forward to see who else has been able to create such delicious and delightful wines with this ancestral method. Pet-Nat producers, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
All wines are 11% abv and retail for approximately $35. Available in MD, DC, VA, MA, CA. They’ll also be available in NY, NJ, PA, NC and SC by June.