As is generally the case with these pieces of prose, a handful of tangentially related incidents coincided to make me want to write about Pet Nat (Pétillant Naturel, sparkling wine that obtains its bubbles through a naturally occurring second fermentation in the bottle.) You may well be saying to yourself: “but Champagne undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle; what’s the difference?” As I understand it, in the case of Pet Nat, the second fermentation starts and ends spontaneously due to small amounts of residual sugar and yeast in the wine. In the case of Champagne, the second fermentation is carefully orchestrated through the addition of sugar and yeast. The second fermentation happens over a long period of time, the longer the better in fact, and we are indebted to this long, slow second fermentation for the particular creamy, sexy texture of Champagne. With Pet Nat, the second fermentation happens quickly; the wine is not meant to age, rather to quaff on a warm day. Pet Nats are often bottled with a crown cap rather than with a cork, though I don’t believe the crown cap is obligatory. I should mention that Pet Nats invariably seem to have silly names and labels that feature drawings and exclamation points. Marketing to the underage audience? I’m sure I’d have chosen Pet Nat over Zima as an adolescent of 16 at the dawn of my drinking career …
Those of you who know me know that I have been railing against Pet Nat for the past few years. Several of my close friends who work in the natural wine world have, upon surveying the sparkling wine shelf at Chambers Street, demanded “where are all the Pet Nats?!!?” (The answer is, of course, “at someone else’s hipster wine store in Brooklyn.”) I’ve found that Pet Nats often contain two things I do not like in my wine: sweetness and mousiness (the yeasty, peanut husk flavor that marks the finish of many natural wines that have not been racked or filtered sufficiently to remove all the lees). While sweetness has a time and place, mousiness does not, and the combination of the two is noxious in my opinion. I believe the wine that turned me off Pet Nat for years was a Thierry Puzelat Pet Nat that was oxidative, riddled with volatile acidity, still, faintly sweet, and mousy. I just couldn’t do it anymore; I wrote the species off entirely. The truth is that when I started to love Champagne, I stopped drinking Pet Nat. Though the two beverages are perhaps categorically similar (at least they live on the same shelf in our wine store), I find them to be radically different. (Del the Funky Homosapien and Pusha T are within the same musical category, but their music is totally dissimilar, and the question is “are there people who like both?”)
Pet Nat began to creep back into my heart a few months ago. The catalyst was a wine called Rosé, Rosa, Rosam from La Grange Tiphaine, a ten hectare Domaine in Montlouis. This wine comes from 80-year-old vines of Gamay, Grolleau, Côt, and Cabernet Franc. It’s a peppery, fruity, funky pink sparkling wine with just enough sweetness to coexist with blackberries and strawberries (I know this for a fact; I tried it in Montreal, immediately after asserting to my friends there that “wines never play well with fruits”). In spite of the wine’s faint whisper of sugar on the front palate, the finish is positively brisk and earthy, limestone-y, even … The 2012 version of this wine was very good; the 2013 is even more bracingly delicious, with the vibrant expressiveness of wine with very little sulfur. The finish offers a panoply of flavors that would – in a more conventionally made wine – be masked by the acrid, metallic flavor of sulfur.
Part of my resurgence of interest in Pet Nat is seasonal. It’s very hard to embrace anything truly serious when the weather has finally become warm and sunny after a seemingly endless winter. February’s escapades feel unreal, as though they happened to someone else: running on the track in a dark, minor-keyed, electronic-music-induced stupor, light snow swirling atmospherically, collecting on my hair and hat. Was that really me drinking Savagnin and rich, oaky Champagne, or –heaven forbid – red wine?!? Now all I want to do is start my morning with Dr. Dre, and end my evening with reggae and a glass of fun, easygoing, refreshing bubbles.
This issue of refreshment came up a few evenings ago when I opened a bottle of 2004 Pascal Doquet Mesnil-sur-Oger. Pascal Doquet more than deserves his own write-up, which will be forthcoming before long. He’s a warm, dedicated, hyper-energetic Champagne vigneron who does great work in the vines, and makes traditional and impeccable Blanc des Blancs. His wines are broad and rich, clawed from the earth, long lees aged, with more dosage than many of the Champagnes I drink. If I were to compare them to Agrapart’s wines, I’d say they’re more rustic and less sleek, less marked by wood, but equally intense and mineral-drenched. The earthy 2004 Mesnil was my favorite wine from my tasting with Pascal. Without malolactic fermentation, it’s structured, tightly coiled Champagne that needs about a decade of bottle age. In short, it’s a dense and impressive bottle of wine with bubbles that was totally unsuited to casual deck drinking. I felt I owed it to the wine to sprint to the nearest chicken rotisserie for a bird. “Damn it,” I said to my conspirator “I really like Champagnes that taste like this … but they are not refreshing at all.” (Champagne and Toots and the Maytals, as it turns out, are kind of weird together, but a nice, frivolous Pet Nat is a perfect match.)
It’s not just that Champagne and Pet Nat taste different. On the wine store shelf, they represent a juxtaposition of mood and attitude. Champagne is posh and polished, aristocratic and sophisticated; Pet Nat is lively and fun; what it lacks in class, it makes up for in jubilance and vivacity. There’s often variation between bottles; I imagine making Pet Nat to be like throwing two high-spirited people who are attracted to each other together in a room with the door closed for a few hours, wondering if they’ll emerge lovers or enemies. If Champagne is the long forging of a complex relationship between sugar and yeast, Pet Nat is a quick, volatile romance. With Champagne, the price is such that bottle variation is undesirable and frustrating, while with Pet Nat, part of the excitement is not knowing what you’ll find when you lever off the crown cap. (A week ago, we opened a magnum of Philippe Bornard’s lightly sweet rosé Pet Nat Tant-Mieux, and there was a geyser-like explosion of pink bubbles all over my deck. Exciting stuff!)
Benoït Courault’s Pet Nat “Eglantine,” made from Anjou Cabernet Franc and Grolleau, began life as a still red wine … and then the bubbles came along. This is not the sort of wine I’m generally quick to embrace, but I was mysteriously drawn to its deep, black peppery funk mingling with raspberry and dark cherry, its kiss of sweetness, and light tannins on the finish. Not unlike a Lambrusco, this wine has real character, and the uniquity of a wine that has never been made before, and may never be made again.
A friend came to the wine store a couple of weeks ago in search of bubbles. He didn’t give a context for the wines; he wanted to try some new things. I sent him home with Rosé, Rosa, Rosam, as well as Stéphane Tissot’s rosé “Indigène.” Later I received a barrage of messages “what is this stuff? It’s crazy!” He was relaxing outside in his backyard, with wines fitting for the occasion. Several days later, he passed along one of the finest compliments I’ve received in some time: “seriously, that shit you sent me home with last time … I swear it shows up in my dreams sometimes.”
I found that in order to get back into Pet Nat, I needed – at least temporarily – to reconnect with my free-spirited inner hippie, to take a momentary departure from the person who analyzes the minutiae of fine Champagnes, to let these wines’ flaws be part of their charm rather than a reason to write them off entirely. Apparently it’s not the case that Pet Nat is a naturally made, less-expensive substitute for Champagne; the two are not interchangeable, and – I never would have believed this a few months ago – there may even be scenarios in which a casual Pet Nat is more fitting than its classier cousin. In my heart of hearts, I’m a Champagne person, but it turns out that this early summer, I’m in the mood for Pet Nat.