For The Love Of Pet-Nat

Several months ago, at a casual dinner for two of our favorite female winemakers, Faith Armstrong-Foster handed me an unlabeled bottle of wine. It was the first sparkling wine for her Onward Wines brand, just bottled and brought from the West Coast. As she walked away, I removed the crown cap and heard a small fizz. Armstrong-Foster wheeled around and exclaimed: "That's the best sound I've ever heard!" "Why?" we asked. "It's the first bottle opened and I didn't know if it would actually be sparkling!"

Thus was my entrance into the world of pet-nat, short for "pétillant naturel," and fittingly, it occurred at Brooklyn wine shop Vine Wine, which is hosting its third-annual Pet-Nat Week, taking place until July 18. Owner Talitha Whidbee always had a love for this type of natural sparkling wine and wanted to give customers the opportunity to try many expressions side-by-side. "I feel like there is something joyous and celebratory about it in a more casual way than other sparkling wines," Whidbee notes. "It is meant to be shared with friends and to be consumed young."

Also known as "methode ancestrale," the technique for making pet-nat differs from the traditional method of making sparkling wine. A winemaker will bottle and cap the still-fermenting wine, causing it to build pressure in the bottle as it finishes fermentation, creating bubbles. The timing of this bottling is crucial: cap the wine too late, and it won't be sparkling, but cap it too soon, and you risk exploding bottles. The method is traditionally used in France, but now pet-nats are being made in Italy, Spain, U.S.A., Australia, and even Slovenia.

Though the winemaker must be very careful when making pet-nat, to a certain degree, the finished wine is out of his or her control. Unfined and unfiltered, each individual bottle develops in a different way. "I think one of the important parts of pet-nat is that it is a labor of love for a winemaker... an imperfect product in a world that is more focused on perfection and standards than on nature," says Whidbee. Therefore, though pet-nats tend to be easy-drinking and lower in alcohol across the board, it's difficult to assign one style to the entire category. The same wine can very from vintage to vintage and bottle to bottle, making the world of pet-nat that much more exciting to explore.

Start exploring with Whidbee and Vine Wine all week — they'll be holding free tastings every day from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Williamsburg-area shop (616 Lorimer St. at Skillman). Here are five of our favorites:

2013 Bellwether Riesling "Tuller Vineyard" Pétillant Naturel, Finger Lakes, NY ($22.95): Holy cow, is this wine good! This first-ever bottling was just released onto the market a few weeks ago, and it lives up to expectations. Tons of yeasty, barnyard funk on the nose, with that clean riesling citrus quality lying just underneath. It tastes like salty, savory apples and is almost cider-like.

[pullquote:left]2013 Onward Malvasia Bianca Pétillant Naturel, Suisun Valley, Calif. ($26.95): Another successful first pet-nat attempt! Light yet creamy, it has flavors of lemon, red apple, and gardenia. Like spring in a glass.

NV Domaine Chahut et Prodiges "Nid de guêpes," Loire Valley ($27.95): A bit cleaner than the others, this chenin blanc/sauvignon blanc blend smells like pears, candied lemons, and (dare I say it?) Pine Sol. Very savory, and would be great with food.

2013 Benoit Courault "Eglantine," Loire Valley ($26.95): A darker pet-nat, this wine is vinified as a red wine, rather than as a white or rosé. A blend of cabernet franc and grolleau, the Eglantine is all cranberries and earth. Dry, but with just the slightest bit of sugar to round things out, it reminds me of Thanksgiving... but better.

2012 La Combe aux Rêves "Noct'en Bulles," Jura ($34.95): This salmon-colored rosé pet-nat is exactly what pet-nat should be! Off-dry and easy-drinking, this 100% Poulsard wine tastes like salty strawberries and fresh cranberries, with a lot of earth.  Like sunshine and happiness. It also comes magnum-sized, and trust me — that's the one you'll want.