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Food & Wine Pét-nat, the sparkling wine style that came before Champagne, is bubbling into the mainstream

Short for pétillant-naturel, or 'natural sparkling,' the term often is used interchangeably with méthode ancestrale, referring to the technique by which the world’s first spritzy wines were made.

Zosia Bielski/The Globe and Mail

Jay Drysdale recalls the novelty of discovering his first pét-nat several years ago. The co-owner of Bella Wines, a boutique bubbly producer in Naramata, B.C., had been browsing a store in San Francisco when he came across a modern example of a pre-Champagne style of sparkling wine that had somehow slipped through the cracks of his considerable wine education. “Having been a sommelier for 15 years or so, I was surprised and impressed there was something I hadn’t heard of,” Drysdale says.

Returning home with two or three bottles, he and wife Wendy Rose, his business partner, sniffed, sipped, raised eyebrows in amazement and cracked the history books before tinkering in the cellar. “We tried a couple barrels and one worked and one didn’t and it kind of got me hooked ever since,” he says.

Since that first 2014 vintage, Drysdale has gone all-in, expanding his small-batch, single-vineyard pét-nat offerings to between eight and 10 a year, more than almost any other producer in the world. In the meantime, the ancient, low-intervention winemaking style has morphed from obscure curiosity to the darling of hipster wine bars. This year, it’s poised to hit the mainstream.

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“I think everybody is experimenting with making it because it is fun, it is easy to market and it commands a decent price point,” Drysdale says.

Short for pétillant-naturel, or “natural sparkling,” the term often is used interchangeably with méthode ancestrale, referring to the technique by which the world’s first spritzy wines were made. The basic recipe: Bottle before the wine has finished primary fermentation, cap it tightly and let nature run its course. Yeast continue to feed off grape sugars, while carbon dioxide, no longer permitted to escape from the open tank, gets trapped in bottle, yielding dissolved bubbles.

Champagnes and most other pricey sparklers, by contrast, finish primary fermentation in tank or barrel like a normal still wine. They then undergo a forced secondary fermentation in bottle with added yeast and sugar in a technique called méthode traditionelle, or the Champagne method.

With flavours often described as cidery, the wines tend to lack the doughy, savoury depth and creamy texture of Champagne, but they compensate with a raw, gutsy energy and a broad profile that can range from freshly fruity and grapey to funky, sour and earthy. Usually hazy, the wines often skip the disgorging stage, wherein spent-yeast sediment is removed from bottle prior to release. As with opaque wheat beers, cloudiness is considered part of the charm. Basically, if Champagne is a glittery mansion, pét-nat is an exposed-brick loft.

“They’re all different,” Drysdale said. “If you had one pét-nat that maybe didn’t jibe with you, please try another.” Wise counsel. Some can, and should, be slammed as overly stinky, while others in my experience are so clean and filtered as to be innocuous – one-note sparkling wines not worth the premium price tag. Great pét-nats, as with great wines generally, are not the norm.

Drysdale estimates there are about 10 B.C. makers of the style, with more than that spread across the rest of the country. Producers include: Okanagan Crush Pad in British Columbia; Hinterland, Traynor Family Vineyard and Trail Estate in Ontario’s Prince Edward County; Leaning Post, Rosewood, Southbrook and – most recently and auspiciously – Tawse in Niagara; Domaine du Nival in Quebec; and L’Acadie Vineyards and Benjamin Bridge in Nova Scotia.

And it appears there will be lots more where those came from. Jonas Newman, co-owner of Hinterland Wine Co. in Prince Edward County, says he participated in a sparkling-wine conference at Brock University in Niagara in December attended by about 100 people representing 40 Canadian wineries. “The afternoon was filled with tastings, but a good chunk of the day was dedicated to pét-nats,” he says.

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Those attendees could have taken a master class from Newman, it turns out, who with wife and business partner Vicki Samaras produced in 2010 what I featured as the first commercial méthode ancestrale wine in Canada, long before the trend took root in the chic wine bars of New York and San Francisco. In Hinterland’s case, the wine was red, made from gamay, and based on a tradition kept quietly alive by producers in the enclave of Bugey Cerdon in the Jura Mountains of eastern France.

Most subsequent bottlings from around the world have tended to pledge allegiance instead to the Loire Valley in northern France. That’s where in the 1990s two natural-wine champions, Christian Chaussard and Thierry Puzelat, revived the style with a “natural” twist. Using the ancestral method, they relied on ambient versus cultured yeasts as well as on organic farming and other low-intervention tweaks. Perhaps most important, they came up with an abbreviation easier for hipness-obsessed American sommeliers to pronounce than “pétillant naturel.”

If the Loire is home to the style’s latest renaissance, the ancestral method’s actual geographical origins are, like most pét-nats, murky. The prevailing theory cites the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Hilaire in Limoux in southern France, where sparkling wines were in production more than a century before Dom Pérignon was reputed to have invented Champagne. In the cool hills of Limoux, fall fermentations would often stall as yeasts fell dormant in the cold. Impatient monks (they exist!) would bottle anyway. When spring arrived, yeasts would reanimate to finish feeding off grape sugars, producing carbon dioxide under pressure.

It’s likely that such a scenario transpired in every cool winemaking region up to that time, including Italy’s prosecco district, which resulted in a cacophony of exploding bottles. But the Limoux monks enjoyed an advantage. Proximity to Spain, just over the Pyrenees, gave access to a material superior to the hard wooden bottle closures common at the time. Cork, an elastic bark, provided the snug seal.

For centuries, prosecco producers were, in fact, known for bottling sparkling wines undisgorged in a style called col fondo, meaning “with the bottom,” a reference to the spent-yeast, or lees, sediment. Think of col fondo as dirty prosecco.

Although theoretically simple and inexpensive to produce (no six-figure riddling or disgorging equipment necessary, the way it is with Champagne), good pét-nats demand assiduous attention in the winery. You’re essentially bottling a moving target because there must be sufficient sugar in the fermenting vat to create bubbles in bottle but not so much as to generate explosive pressure.

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“If it’s four in the morning and we’ve got to bottle our pét-nat, then that’s when we’ve got to do it,” said Mike Traynor, winemaker and owner of Traynor Family Vineyard in Prince Edward County, who says pét-nats are the hardest wines he’s ever made

To ensure his don’t froth up uncontrollably once opened, Traynor switched from beer-style crown caps to twist-off screwcaps. “My customers appreciate that,” he says. “Nobody needs pét-nat all over their ceilings. It happens. I’ve been banned from a couple of my friend’s houses.”

Worse, if yeasts have been stressed because of lack of nutrients or enzymes, it can manifest in myriad flaws, from the dreaded rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide to the pungent sting of excessive sulphur to vinegar-like volatile acidity. “If there’s egg smell in a tank, it’s easy to fix,” Traynor says. “You can do things to clean up a stinky tank ferment. But if it’s in a bottle, there’s nothing you can do.”

For that reason, Drysdale at Bella in British Columbia now views his pét-nats as an early-warning system for vineyard problems. Even “organic” mildew sprays containing sulphur that blow over from neighbouring properties, he says, show up clearly in the wines. The telltale signs: flavours of popcorn or hazelnut in the finished wine, essences that might be pleasant in yeast-contact Burgundian chardonnays, but which Drysdale detests in his ancestral bubblies.

With five pét-nats on her smartly curated wine list, Heather Rankin – co-owner of Obladee, a wine bar in Halifax – is convinced the trend has legs. “I think the timing is right,” she says. Even those that are not produced organically at least follow a low-intervention approach, she says, and that dovetails with today’s obsession with raw food and “pared-down-everything.” It’s one reason Rankin recently donned rubber boots to collaborate with Bruce Ewert of L’Acadie Vineyards, Nova Scotia’s pioneering organic sparkling-wine producer, to create a joint-venture pét-nat, half of which will be sold at her wine bar and half at the winery.

“I think it’s beyond a fad now,” says Nicholas Pearce, managing director of Nicholas Pearce Wine Inc., a Toronto-based wine agency that carries Leaning Post’s First Fruit from Niagara as well as pét-nats from abroad. He colourfully dubs the category a “love child” of craft beer, Champagne, prosecco, Spanish cava and Normandy cider.

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Beyond chic wine bars, Pearce’s pét-nats are now stocked by many high-end dining establishments, not just in Toronto, but also in Ottawa; Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.; Hamilton; Thunder Bay and elsewhere. He says the trend has also earned a tip of the ball cap from the funky-flavour-obsessed craft-beer world. He notes that Burdock, a top Toronto micro-brewery, as well as other tap houses and brewpubs have begun carrying his pét-nats “even though their main attraction is beer.”

What to serve with a pét-nat? Nothing too refined, I’d say. These hit-or-miss beverages tend to be best quaffed more like beer than, say, a first-growth Bordeaux, with charcuterie, fish and chips or a burger and fries. I find fried foods, whether calamari or wings or spring rolls, go particularly well.

Price-wise, they tend to be neither inexpensive nor absurdly out of reach, often falling closely on either side of the $30 mark. Given the toil and risk involved, pét-nats seem like a bargain next to Champagne – assuming you get a good one. “Usually it’s a bunch of dirty hippies making these wines,” Hinterland’s Newman says. “They’re not elitist about it at all.”

Traynor Family Vineyard Pet-Nat White 2018, Ontario

Score: 91

Price: $40

Pale-yellow, with considerable cloudiness. This distinctive, off-dry Prince Edward County sparkler bursts forth with cheerful fruitiness reminiscent of a fresh grapefruit half topped with a dusting of sugar. Well-tuned sweetness and moderately spritzy carbonation. Genuinely offbeat pét-nat flavours. The similarly priced pét-nat red is joyously Beaujolais nouveau-like. Available direct through traynorvineyard.com.

Château Barouillet Splash Pét-Nat 2018, France

Score: 90

Price: $26.95

A 100-per-cent sémillon from an avant-garde organic specialist in southwest France. Pale-straw in colour and faintly hazy, with low carbonation. Very dry, with grapy, fresh-apple fruit and a subtly earthy essence and note of stone dust. Available by the case direct from the Ontario agent, Nicholas Pearce Wines, npwines.com.

Southbrook Organic Biodynamic Bubbly 2017, Ontario

Score: 90

Price: $27.75

Funky on the nose, like a rustic farmhouse cider, with a prominent whiff of struck match. Bone-dry on the palate, with low effervescence, it replays the smoky-flinty essence along with notes of fresh grape, apple and lemon. Available direct from the Niagara winery at southbrook.com.

Free Form Ancient Method 2017, British Columbia

Score: 89

Price: $34.90

Plug your ears while popping the crown cap; this ancestral-method bubbly can make an explosive pop. Pale-yellow, with orange highlights, it’s cleanly made from 100-per-cent pinot noir, displaying a rich, rounded profile more closely associated with actual Champagne. It’s been disgorged (with zero dosage) and is relatively clear in appearance, recalling green apple, lemon and a subtle suggestion of half-fermented must. Excellent depth of flavour and acid tension. Available direct through okanagancrushpad.com.

Tawse Pet-Nat 2017, Ontario

Score: 88

Price: $24.95

Very faint haze. Very cleanly made. A crisp, cidery style, bone-dry and big on tart apple along with hard lemon candy. This could almost pass for a regular traditional-method bubbly versus a pét-nat. No funk in the trunk here. A good pét-nat introduction for the sediment-squeamish. Available at the Niagara winery boutique, tawsewinery.ca.

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