Reporting from Paris —
At L'Ebauchoir, an upscale bistro in Paris' 12th arrondissement, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood east of Bastille, a swarm of wine professionals — journalists, bar owners and sommeliers — is diligently tasting a range of Chenin Blancs from the Montlouis area of France's Loire Valley.
At the stroke of 7 p.m., two vignerons, Bertrand Jousset and Damien Delecheneau, interrupt the tasting with an ear-splitting call to attention.
They are standing at the front of the restaurant, beside an oak wine barrel attached to a small bottling machine, and are about to demonstrate a crucial step in the making of a new kind of Montlouis: a thoroughly dry, gently sparkling wine officially named Pétillant Originel but often called by its makers Pétillant Naturel, or more affectionately, Pet'Nat.
Montlouis is an appellation just east of the city of Tours, where white wines are made from Chenin Blanc in a multitude of styles — from bone dry to unctuously sweet; from still to two traditional types of sparkling wine, méthode traditionelle, made like Champagne, and Pétillant, which, with half the bubbles of Champagne, is creamier and less vigorously fizzy.
And now comes Pétillant Originel, which won legal status from the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine in 2007, different from traditional Pétillant. Most significant, Pétillant Originel must be absolutely natural, a product of the grapes harvested and no more. It is illegal to add either sugar or yeast at any stage of the wine's production, although both are commonly used in Champagne.
Hyper-naturalists view these additions — not to mention the use of other additives such as enzymes and bentonite — as nothing more than chemistry, all of which undermines the purity of the wine.
While eschewing additives may be a matter of principle for all Pet'Nat producers, for Montlouis vintners like Delecheneau and Jousset, it is also a matter
of law, not to mention painstaking, meticulous work in vineyard and cellar, as
Jousset is about to demonstrate.
A rangy 35-year-old with the square-jawed good looks of a latter-day Marlboro Man, Jousset explains that the barrel is filled with new, unfinished wine. The wine stopped fermenting in January while it still had 14 grams of residual sugar and has been kept in a refrigerated room since then.
Behind him, a small assembly line of vintners suctions the wine from the barrel, through the spigots of the bottling machine and into bottles that are then capped like Coca-Cola. Jousset continues: Once warmer weather arrives, that residual sugar and any remaining natural yeasts will restart the fermentation and, in the process, produce the bubbles that make the wine sparkle.
"It dawned on me," recalled winemaker Delecheneau, 31, of Domaine de la Grange Tiphaine, "I don't add sugar or yeast to my still wines, so why do I add them to my Pétillant? This was in 2005. That's when a group of us started talking about Pétillant Originel, although we called it 'Pet'Nat' at the time."
Whatever you call them, the wines are made, for the most part, by resolutely organic, doggedly noninterventionist vintners, among them Christian Chaussard, who, Delecheneau observes, inspired him and a lot of other young winemakers.
Way back in the 1990s, when Chaussard was located in Vouvray — across the Loire River from Montlouis — he made a fizzy, not-quite-pétillant simply by letting his Vouvray re-ferment spontaneously in springtime.
Those were the very early days of the hyper-naturalist, noninterventionist winemaking movement in France — when outliers like the Puzelat brothers (Clos du Tue-Boeuf) and Claude Courtois (Cailloux du Paradis) in Touraine and J.J. Brun in Beaujolais (Domaine des Terres Dorées) began opting for organic or biodynamic farming and forswearing industrial yeasts, enzymes, sulfur, added sugar, added tannins — you name it — as well as just about any technique counseled by modern enologists.
Since that time, hyper-natural winemaking has become a movement, spreading the gospel of "natural wines" throughout France and well beyond.
And the Pet'Nat movement is spreading throughout France as well. Now relocated an hour north in the Coteaux du Loir appellation, Chaussard remains true to the cause, making a variety of quirky hyper-natural wines including Pet'Nats such as "You Are So Happy," a herbaceous blend of Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc, and "You Are So Bubbly," a foamy weave of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Cinsault.
Other popular producers such as Pierre and Catherine Breton in Bourgueil, Thierry Puzelat in Touraine, and Dominique Derain in Burgundy are among the growing number of eco-serious vintners adding some Pet'Nat fizz to their line of still wines.
Most of these Pet'Nats from outside Montlouis are sweet — ranging from slightly off-dry to as sweet as Dr Pepper — and many hark back to old-fashioned styles of winemaking (appropriately called méthode ancestrale and méthode rurale) in the regions of Limoux and Gaillac.
An important subgroup is deep pink, in the style of Cerdon, a sparkling wine in the Savoie's Bugey appellation. Emile Heredia from the Domaine de Montrieux outside Vendome, for example, makes a Cerdon-like Pet'Nat called Boisson Rouge from old Gamay vines. Simon Hawkins of Domaine de Fontenay in the Côte Roannaise makes a sudsy Gamay with the sweet-tart flavors of cranberry relish.
Montlouis Pétillant Originel is totally dry, however. And it differs from Pet'Nats in another significant way: Most, if not all Pet'Nats, are vins de table or vins de France — in other words, not part of any official wine group, with all the anarchy and qualitative differences that implies, from the urbane to the outlandish. Montlouis Pétillant Originel is governed by law and aims to be reliably urbane.
Jousset and Delecheneau, along with Xavier Weisskopf (Domaine des Rocher des Violettes) and Domaine Alex-Mathur wanted to make a Pétillant that was not only ultra-pure but also a full-fledged wine — ripe, vinous, consistent in quality and fine enough to serve in Michelin-starred restaurants, but reasonably priced. (Most sell in France for $10 to $15.)
To this end, they drew up a quality charter with exigent requirements. In addition to abolishing the addition of yeast and sugar, the charter mandates low yields, greater ripeness of the grapes than is anticipated for most sparkling wines, as well as aging for a minimum of nine months before being disgorged.
"It's very difficult and very risky," Delecheneau says. "The danger is that the wine might stop fermenting."
Less consequential risks include off-flavors resembling beer or cider, which is why Jacky Blot of Domaine de la Taille aux Loups decided to add just a bit of yeast for the prise de mousse when making his very successful "Triple Zero," a Montlouis Pétillant.
According to Delecheneau, his Pétillant Originel is catching on nicely in the U.S. and the wines are beginning to surface in up-to-the-minute wine bars and shops in Paris like La Quincave and Cru et Découvertes.
To understand the simple yet huge pleasures that are Pétillant Originel, try Xavier Weisskopf's 2006. Disgorged in 2008, it's rich and appetizing, lightly salty, with subtle, intriguing flavors of apple and stone. Downright gourmand. Add grace notes of ginger and you've got the 2007 version.
Weisskopf sells almost his entire production of Pétillant Originel to Denmark. "They're crazy for natural wines," he explains.
It is also available in Southern California at Wine Expo and Hi-Times Wine Cellars. Indeed, availability of any Pet'Nats is spotty — though that is supposed to improve by early summer —it's a new product made in startlingly small quantities.
Risks combined with the very newness of the wine explain why only four Montlouisiens currently produce it and why there is so little of it — roughly 20,000 to 25,000 bottles a year.
But as Delecheneau and Jousset point out, the wine has no track record. Other vintners may be waiting to see how it catches on; others may be experimenting until they get it right.
Thierry Bruneau, general manager and wine buyer for L'Ebauchoir, which specializes in hyper-natural wines, was impressed by what he tasted and intends to add a Pétillant Originel to his list soon, most likely Jousset's 2008 "Bubulle" or his favorite, Delecheneau's 2008 "Nouveau Nez."
"It was creamy, dry and mineral. I liked it a whole lot. They're a hard sell right now because people don't know them, but once they try them they really like them and order them again."