I was in Burgundy for work a couple of weeks ago. When I explained to two French colleagues that I needed to be back in time for a tasting one evening, they kindly obliged. Luckily it was only after the flights had been booked that they found out it was a tasting of British pét-nat and alternative sparkling, a concept to which they felt significantly less kind.
The tasting was organised by Tim Wildman MW, a man who has dedicated himself entirely to the world of pét-nat (first in Australia, and now here in England). I’d followed his antics on Instagram for years, and finally encountered him for the first time earlier this year, dropping in during a panicked period of revision to taste his latest releases from Down Under. Somehow he perfectly embodies the style of wine he produces; vibrant, fun and just a little off-beat, but also clearly a technically savvy and pensive winemaker.
He’d worked for Les Caves de Pyrene before moving to Australia, and therefore already encountered the original pét-nat – méthode ancéstrale wines from around France. Making one himself was happy circumstance – a bet with a friend, and a guess that it might be the safest type of wine to attempt as a novice, especially given the flexibility of the style and its novelty in Australia. “In the land of the blind. the one-eyed man makes pét-nat,” he jests. But there was another element to.
“Back in 2014, there was a lot of cynicism in Australia about the whole idea of ‘natural wine’, not least in South Australia, the State dominated by the big brand corporates. I’d even heard leading industry figures say that it was ‘impossible’ to make wine without using sulphur,” Wildman explains. “So I guess I just wanted to prove a point. I knew that pét-nat is, theoretically at least, the least risky style of wine to make without the safety net of sulphur dioxide, as once the ferment starts the wine is always protected by carbon dioxide.”
Eight years later, it’s safe to say that his point has been proven. Pét-nat is being produced by hundreds of producers in Australia. Wildman now makes 35,000 bottles a year that are shipped off to 15 export markets. It’s hard to call anything so very slightly impractical mainstream, but it’s become a firm favourite in the natural wine scene, and a wine that broaches the lines between craft beer, kombucha and cocktails.
By Wildman’s own admission, it took him three vintages to get to the point where he was crafting zero-sulphur wine that was “fruity, fault-free and delicious”. Despite its easy style, it’s technically challenging to produce.
There are two main options for production methods. The classic approach is to bottle the wine in the middle of its primary fermentation, or by “interruption”. But many producers also inoculate a base wine, often with fresh must or sometimes sugar (“intermission”). And while once most wines would have been undisgorged, now many are. Don’t think this means you should expect crystal-clear wines, however, as many will still have the reassuring haze of natural wine.
L.A.S. Vino winemaker Nic Peterkin first made a pét-nat in 2018 (something I witnessed first-hand, while working at Pierro). ”It’s actually f*ing hard to make well for the price people want it at,” he says. The risk of getting the wrong level of lees and it not exploding on opening is all quite high. He’s adapted his method and now uses “intermission” – adding some Cabernet juice to settled white wine after racking. For him it means he can manage sugar, reduce the volume of lees and, logistically, it can be tackled at the end of vintage rather than in the heart of harvest chaos.
I went into this tasting far from convinced about pét-nat. I’d had mixed experiences with bottles I’d tried, but can’t claim to have dedicated a massive amount of time to the category. The tasting encompassed 37 wines, with many pét-nats, but also some that were “col fondo” style – really slightly alternative traditional method wines, designed for earlier drinking.
You can head over to Club Oenologique to read more of my thoughts on the wines, and some more background on the cateogry, but the long and short of it was that I was surprised. Only a small handful were faulty, and those that were I feared would be appreciated by many consumers. It was interesting that the wines that fizzed most uncontrollably on opening, the Vesuvii of pét-nats, were all made by the interruption method and undisgorged.
Wildman’s new UK project, Lost in a Field – and for which he’s just picked his second vintage – is clearly popular. Volumes might be small but the first release sold out rapidly. It’s capturing a moment, perhaps, a sea-change in English wine.
“It still feels like a category in its infancy, with all the best wines still ahead of it, which is how I felt about the Australian natural wine scene back in the 2000s when I was a buyer. And as a wine drinker, and wine lover, that’s the most exciting thing for me, to know that the best is yet to come.”
Read my write-up of the event for Club Oenologique, with my favourite wines from the tasting, here.