Of all the recent wine trends to arrive in Switzerland, the pét-nat vogue may be the first to fizzle out. It’s not because the Swiss don’t like bubbles — they do, Switzerland is an important market for Champagne — but fads and frivolities are never an easy sell here.
To the high-roller banker-types — loyal to classic wines and regions — pét-nats lack gravitas and fail to deliver the required status-enhancing benefits of Champagne. The elusive youth contingent isn’t much help, either. They’re head-over-heels addicted to craft beer (another late-arriving trend), cocktails (ditto), and domestic ciders. To them, Grandpa’s chasselas — bubbly or not —just doesn’t cut it. The large middle-ground, like middle-grounds everywhere, isn’t that adventurous and the Swiss wine press is happy to ignore what isn’t easy to see. I’ve yet to come across a single article to mention the trend.
It’s not as though pét-nats have arrived from another planet — the natural wine hotspots of Beaujolais and the Loire Valley are a mere 400 and 700 kilometers from the center of Switzerland — it’s just that Swiss consumers have yet to fully assimilate earlier trends, such as natural wine, without the added complication of carbonation.
What’s a newbie trend to do?
My Pét-Nat Beginnings
My first exposure to the genre was in 1980 when I stumbled upon an early California cult wine — the iconic moscato amabile from Louis Martini in St. Helena. This mythic, limited to two-weeks release was a hugely aromatic, frothy and easy-to-like wine sold only at the winery and always with the admonition to “keep it cold.” Pity the hapless tourist who neglected that warning — they were the ones you saw wiping down their interior windscreens on the side of State Route 29 on many a sweltering afternoon.
This unique moscato was bottled directly into 750s from unpressurized tanks without filtration or added sulfur. The exact method of production was never revealed but it was rumored to include some controlled fermentation in the bottle. It invariably weighed in at 6% alcohol with plenty of residual sugar, so it was essentially a pét-nat on training wheels. Its propensity to explode when warmed did nothing to diminish its dual status as an insider’s wine and a tourist’s delight.
For me, it epitomized aromatic freshness and deliciousness, and it set a standard for simple pleasures in wine that still stands today.
What Are They?
Because there is no legal definition for pét-nat production, the processes have fallen under the rubric, méthode ancestrale (MA). In simple terms, MA involves the bottling of partially fermented wine, which — when capped — continues to ferment under seal. The trapped CO2 is dissolved in solution, to be released as bubbles when opened.
Technology has made the MA process more predictable but the substantial intervention required to achieve stability and marketability — cold stabilization, filtration, disgorgement and copious amounts of sulfur — has turned the potential target market of natural wine enthusiasts against it.
The four French AOCs with MA cahiers des charges are Bugey-Cerdon, Gaillac, Clairette de Die and Limoux. While each has a few small, non-interventionist producers the category is mostly the province of cooperatives or large independent producers.
This is where pét-nats step in and why they go hand-in-hand with the natural wine movement.
Most pét-nat producers are happy to dispense with formal AOC status and are pleased to offer an uncomplicated wine to their customers. Most are made with no additions and with minimal intervention. It’s generally agreed among fans of the style that unpredictability and simplicity are part of the charm. The clear bottles, bright colors, milky haze, and clever labels are also part of the charm and whether they turn out completely dry, partially sweet, or very sweet is less important than the cohort’s capacity to refresh and delight the drinker.
The style works well with different grapes and is even a successful vehicle for hybrid varieties that might see little demand in other settings. Perhaps most importantly, when drinking prejudices are overcome, it’s a category that can appeal to a cross-section of drinkers. To the price conscious, it’s affordable; to the trend conscious, it’s au courant; to the novice, it’s unpretentious; and to the knowledgable geek, it’s a frivolous pleasure.
The Swiss Invasion
Ironically, the current bubble-making movement in Switzerland is focused on classically-styled méthode Champenoise wines. Those in which a second fermentation in bottle is induced with the addition of yeast and sugar.
More and more quality Swiss producers are making excellent sparkling wine in this way using traditional varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay, but some are successfully experimenting with native grapes like petite arvine. There is something delightfully homespun about using native grapes to refashion a traditional category in one’s own image. I hope one day to see searingly acidic grapes like räuschling and completer used to make great sparkling wines once a critical mass is reached in the vineyards.
But the classic method isn’t for everyone. It’s time-consuming, logistically complex, expensive and, some would argue, less fun. It’s yet to be seen whether any high-value native varieties will ever be used to make a pét-nat.
Presently there are ten producers of Swiss pét-nat that I know of: Christof Ruof in Jenins, Markus Ruch in Klettgau, Anne-Claire Schott in Twann, Hanspeter Kunz in Fläsch, Weingut zum Sternen in Würenlingen, Domaine La Colombe in Féchy, Domaine de la Ville in Morges, Marco Casanova in Walenstadt, Stephan Herter in Winterthur, and Fabien Henriot in Neuchâtel.
At least half of them farm biodynamically while the rest are into organics. Most are steeped in natural wine production and, not coincidentally, most are young and ambitious. As of this writing, Switzerland is set to adopt France’s Vin Méthode Nature regulations and will likely proscribe the use of SO2 to boot.
As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into everything, including several nascent pét-nat projects in Switzerland (Oh, the humanity!). One of those is Marco Casanova’s new “Petnat” dyad which includes a pinot noir from Walenstadt and a seyval blanc from Malans in neighboring Graubünden.
Both versions were recently shipped to me for evaluation, which I dutifully undertook with friends at an early summer, socially-distanced apéro in my garden.
The pinot was a beautiful, bright hibiscus color that sparkled through the clear glass bottle until shaken, when it assumed a kind of strawberry milkshake, pastel pink opaqueness. It was absolutely delicious with a ripe strawberry/red currant flavor floating on a soft, caressing blanket of foam. It had just the right amount of sweetness with a refreshing tea-like grip. More than one person said they could drink it all day.
The seyval was drier and harder to like with a bit of reduction and a sweaty sauerkraut intensity. Interestingly, perhaps because of the sauerkraut suggestion, there was a fresh rye bread and warm yeast aroma, as well. This was really asking for some charcuterie, cheese or something else to manage its austerity.
My synopsis: this is a category to play with. I like the slightly sweet, fresh and grapey examples which tend to make wonderful aperitifs and make for easy, uncritical drinking. The drier more complex examples need some kind of foil. An adventurous wine lover would do well to figure out where this category fits within a drinking scheme.
Now, if only the locals would loosen up a little.