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Get to know Champagne's best friend, Pétillant-Naturel

Get to know Champagne's best friend, Pétillant-Naturel

Champagne has been the go-to sparkler for parties for over two hundred years, but there are plenty of lesser-known sparkling wines out there to discover. With the sparkling wine industry booming, other fizzy bottles are gaining on Champagne's monopoly on clink-worthy celebrations and New Year's Eve soirées.

You've heard of its Italian cousin, prosecco and Spanish sister, cava, but you're probably unfamiliar with Champagne's more down-to-earth best friend: pétillant-naturel. Affectionately called "pét-nats" by those in the know, pétillant-naturels are wines bottled prior to completing their first fermentation and don't have extra sugar added to them during a second fermentation (called dosage) - unlike heady Champagne.

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To learn more, we turned to sommelier Phil Johnson of natural wine-focused New York City boîte, Gloria, who helped clue us in on the buzzy bubbly:

The Daily Meal: Which grape varietals are usually used for pétillant-naturels?
Phil Johnson: Pét-nats can be made with any varietal, white or red, but I find the best, for me, are usually made with Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Gamay. Spanish pét-nats use native Spanish grapes of course-Xarello, Parellada, and sometimes Palomino, while Italian pet-nats employ their own varieties as well: prosecco, malvasia, etc. In the United States, these wines are made with just about any grape that the winemaker has access to. Overall, I think winemakers are looking for grapes that make fresh, highly acidic wines. You wouldn't want a merlot or cabernet sauvignon pét-nat as you might run into some problems.

Where are they usually grown?
Pét-nats' modern history really begins in the 1990's in the Loire Valley of France. They're also found in Limoux and Gaillac in the South. In Northeast Spain, Catalonia is home to the most exciting Spanish pet-nat producers; in Italy, we find interesting Pét-nats in Veneto in the prosecco region, in Sicily, and all over the central part of the country. In the U.S., lots of cool things are happening in the North Coast of California, upstate New York, and Missouri.

How does their production compare to the Méthode Champenoise?
The production method of pét-nat wine is called Méthode Ancestral, which means it's made by bottling grape juice that hasn't completed its fermentation yet. The wine usually capped with a bottle cap or some sort of plastic closure, different than a Champagne cork, as these wines aren't really meant for aging. The one and only fermentation completes in the bottle, unlike Champagne, which is a second fermentation in its own bottle. A mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the bottled, still juice, and after the yeast gobbles up this sugar, carbon dioxide is produced and trapped in the bottle.

Champagne can be aged for years with this yeast, but ultimately it must be disgorged before release. This involves the winemaker removing the plug of sediment that has collected at the bottom of the bottle through slow gentle rotation-a process called "riddling." After disgorgement, the Champagne is re-corked, aged again, and then shipped out when ready. Unlike Champagne, pét-nats are not disgorged, and may or may not be filtered before shipping.

What effect does this have on the taste and effervescence of the wine?
Méthode Ancestral creates a more gentle bubble than Méthode Champenoise, and sometimes a cloudy appearance. There can be a lot of "floaties," or sediment hanging out in the bottle. These wines are super fresh; they smell and taste alive. They're easy drinking, low in alcohol, straight up quaffable crushers. Champagne, on the other hand, is a bit more serious. Champagne hails from one of the most interesting terroirs in the world-the region's porous soil of limestone and chalk produce vines that struggle as they try to tap into their water supply. The temperatures are often freezing, but not too cold, and this struggle can produce gorgeous Champagne with great finesse, elegance, and balance. Further, Champagne can be aged from usually at least three years to much longer, which adds a whole new level of maturity and complexity in the wine that pét-nats lack-for better or for worse, depending on your palate.

How does the average pét-nat compare to a traditional prosecco? Cava?
Pét-nats are similar to proseccos and cavas in a few ways. First, all of these sparklers are low-key and about joy. They're party wines, affordable and fun, and don't require a lot of your attention. The top Champagnes are brands (customers like remembering brands), and have become insanely expensive. Pét-nats, proseccos, and cavas generally never climb higher than $25 retail.

Also, I don't think most customers really think too hard about the brand of prosecco or cava they are purchasing, they generally pick whatever is on the shelf in their price range. You shouldn't do this with pét-nat wine, however, as producer is everything!

Finally, prosecco is made in the tank method, which means it undergoes two fermentations similar to Champagne, but this occurs in a sealed stainless steel tank, instead of in individual bottles, and there's no disgorgement. Cava, on the other hand, is made actually in the same method as Champagne, but being from Spain, it cannot be called Champagne. Champagne was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. I agree, Champagne is an outstanding value to humanity, but so are pét-nats!

What do you think is the best setting to serve them in?
Pét-nat wines to me are about unabashed fun, joy, and having a good time. These are party wines that should be drank at a party. I often find myself drinking these wines standing up, eating delicious finger foods. As I taste, the memory conjured by a pét-nat makes me feel that I'm on some romantic cobbled curvy street in Paris, and I'm hanging out at a wine bar that is buzzing and electric.

What are your favorite foods or dishes to pair with pét-nats?
Pét-nats can be not only a summer barbeque wine or a beach wine, but an oysters and cheese and charcuterie wine, or a wine to enjoy while hanging out in a wine bar as you watch the snowflakes fall on a magical corner of your neighborhood. These wines are not buttoned up or serious, and neither should the food be that you're enjoying them with be. Think raw bar, meats and cheese, snacks, pâté, pickles, vegetables that you eat with your hands-really if it can be eaten with your hands, that's a good indicator.

Do you have a few current favorites you can recommend?
I am hesitant to talk about my favorite pét-nat wines as sometimes they become immediately sold out on release, but here we go: From France, I love Les Capriades, Lise & Bertrand Jousset, Martin Texier, Ludovic Chanson, the Mosse family, Quentin Borse of Le Sot de L'Ange, Marie Thibault, Philippe Tessier, Laurent Barth, Jean-Baptiste Menigoz at Les Bottes Rouges, Damien Delecheneau of La Grange Tiphaine, and Sébastien Brunet.

If you don't have time to memorize these producers, memorize the importer on the back of a pét-nat you love-you'll see these importer logo stickers again and again. Chances are you'll enjoy other wines from that importer as well. I generally love wines from Louis/Dresner, Selection Massale, Zev Rovine, Jenny & Francois, Fifi, Avant Garde, Camille Riviere, and Goatboy Selections.

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