Toward the end of the 2017 harvest, Finger Lakes winemaker Kris Matthewson posted on his Facebook page, “Do I have to make pét-nat?” Friends and industry acquaintances were quick to comment with responses ranging from emphatic “nos,” to wistful remarks about past releases, to quips about what hipster oddity the Bellwether Wines winemaker could produce next.
Pétillant-naturel, nicknamed pét-net, is a natural, single-fermentation, often unfiltered sparkling wine. Over the past five years, the style has shot to fame. It’s now found in classic establishments like Gramercy Tavern in NYC, and offbeat spots like Bad Hunter in Chicago. Often adorned with a quirky label and topped with an easy-to-open crown cap, pét-nat ranks high on the list of everyday wine recommendations by sommeliers and wine geeks.
But as more winemakers hop aboard the pét-nat bandwagon each year, Matthewson’s tired, if half-joking, comment illustrates the fact that this fast-and-furious trend is quickly approaching its peak. Pét-nat lovers need not fear, though. The fade of the pét-nat trend will actually turn out to be a good thing in the long term.
Most somms would be quick to dispel the notion that pétillant-naturel is a trend, pointing out that the defining méthode ancestrale by which pét-nat is made was first recorded in 1531. While it’s true that this ancestral method predates the traditional Champagne method, pét-nat had little to no significance until the last decade. Two Loire Valley producers, Domaine Le Brisseau and Les Capriades, pioneered the category as we know it in the 1990s, but nobody outside France had heard of it when Talitha Whidbee, owner of Vine Wine in Brooklyn and founder of the annual Pét-Nat Week, purchased her first bottle in the mid-2000s. Today, that’s certainly not the case.
“It seems like everyone has their own pét-nat,” Whidbee says. When Vine Wine launched its first Pét-Nat Week in 2012, its selection was dominated by French producers, with a handful of other European ones as well. But as pét-nat caught on the following year, more small American producers began not just drinking the juice, like the rest of the wine trade, but going one step further and making their own versions of it. Today, American pét-nat is produced in California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Texas, and even Vermont, demonstrating that this trend has truly caught hold nationwide.
“When we began making pét-nat we weren’t trying to respond to a trend at all – I just thought it was a really interesting wine,” Chris Brundrett, co-owner of William Chris Vineyards in Texas, says. It’s no coincidence that American pét-nat producers are typically the new-wave, experimental, more naturally-minded ones, like Cruse Wine Co., La Garagista, and Donkey and Goat, to name a few. Some sommeliers and wine trade members who had never even attempted winemaking created pét-nat cuvées, like wine importer Eric Clemons with Fossil and Till and Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier with Chëpìka.
Most of these wines started off as experimental side projects, sparkling wines created for personal drinking and satisfaction. Craig Haarmeyer, owner and winemaker of Haarmeyer Wine Cellars in Sacramento, for instance, first made pét-nat in 2007 but didn’t release any commercially until 2013.
But these wines do also have commercial benefits. “In some ways, since it is ready to drink it can be a great way of generating cash flow, as it is something that people will consume immediately,” Whidbee says. Whereas most traditional sparkling wines need to spend time aging on the lees, pét-nat could theoretically be ready to sell just a few months after harvest.
When it comes down to it, however, pét-nat makers and lovers all cite the same reasons for loving these natural bubblies. “I think winemakers want to create these fun, party wines, let loose, put some cartoons on the label, and make wine that is meant to be popped and consumed right after purchase,” Phil Johnson, sommelier and managing partner of Gloria in Manhattan, says.
Pét-nat truly is the epitome of wine-geek fun, a combination of every cult facet packed into one bottle: a sparkling, natural, often unfiltered wine that tends to have earthy, funky notes and tastes different in every bottle. Most pét-nat falls into the industry sweet spot of spending as well: about $20 to $30 in shops and between $45 and $75 on a wine list.
But that’s the thing about pét-nat — at its core, it truly is a niche beverage that appeals to a specific, if vocal, subset of wine drinkers. While national publications like Esquire and the Wall Street Journal may have written about pét-nat in the past two years, trends like fruity red blends and bourbon barrel-aged wines have far more mass appeal.
“There are quite a few that are just a little too bizarre for a lot of people, unfortunately, and it’s always a bummer when a perfectly fine bottle gets rejected,” Johnson says. Even if pét-nat is getting more consumer attention, it’s probably never going to be the kind of wine made by Cupcake or Beringer. And while pét-nat’s fans would probably breathe a sigh of relief at that notion, even they have a complicated relationship with the category.
“I’m not sure if winemakers love it,” Haarmeyer says. “I’m not sure if buyers, in general, like the idea too much either. I feel like it’s a love-it-or-hate-it divide in the market.”
The problem is that while pét-nat has its advantages and is easier to produce in some ways, given that it is quicker to market, doesn’t require additives, and doesn’t require as much extra equipment as traditional sparkling winemaking, it is absolutely a tricky wine to produce.
“The struggle with the pétillant naturel is its volatility,” Jason Holman, owner and winemaker of Holman Cellars in the Napa Valley, says. “Not cared for in shipping or storage, these unsulphured wines can struggle with bacterial spoilage.”
Just as the wine trade has begun to question how good natural wine really is, no longer willing to blindly accept the excuse of “it’s natural” for faulty funk in a bottle, they are also scrutinizing the core quality of pét-nat wines on the market today. If a wine isn’t sound, wine drinkers won’t purchase it, which will help weed out the producers that merely jumped on the bandwagon of this trend.
“I think there is still room for growth but that many will give up,” Haarmeyer says. “It’s fun, it’s tasty, it’s easy and quick to market and hip, but it’s a commitment in the end.”
As wine geeks seek out the next hipster juice and winemakers look for the next appealing experiment, some might conclude that pét-nat will fade back into oblivion, as it did for much of its historical existence. And it would, if pét-nat were merely a fad, a novelty that rushed to the forefront of wine drinking for a short period of time and then rapidly lost its allure. But once the excited bandwagon empties out, whittling supporters down to a solid core, pét-nat has the potential to be a widely respected wine, rather than just a quirky, cool one.
“It has its own staying power,” Brundrett says. “All signs indicate it’s not going anywhere for a good while.”
Once only the producers that really believe in the potential of pét-nat are at the helm of the category, willing to put in the energy that it takes to produce clean, delicious wines, the overall quality of pét-nat will rise. Pét-nat may never be as hip as it is right now, but that’s O.K. It will have far more impact once it’s widely known as another one of the classic wines of the world.