2018 Sparkling Clairette Méthode Anscestrale, “Pét-Nat”, Love Garden
Santa Barbara County
This is our first ever release of a wine with bubbles. It’s from one of these new white Rhone varieties that I am looking at--in this case, namely, Clairette. Stylistically, the wine falls under the Ancestral Method, or in French, Méthode Ancestrale. It is believed that Méthode Ancestrale is the way Europe’s first sparkling wines were made, most likely by accident. The other stylistic term that I often hear applied to wines like this is “Pét-Nat”, which is short for Pétillant Naturel, or naturally sparking. At the moment, pét-nat is all the rage in the blossoming “natural wine” movement, and is definitely on most wine hipsters’ radar screens. Personally, I prefer the term Méthode Ancestrale because it just sounds cool. I’ll use the term pét-nat here, as it is currently the more popular term in the wine trade.
The way you produce a wine like this is to bottle it slightly before its primary fermentation is finished. Thus, the tail end of fermentation, along with any carbon dioxide it produces, takes place in, and stays in, the bottle. Since the carbon dioxide can’t escape into the atmosphere, it is forced back into solution in the wine. You can see how the very first sparkling wines were probably produced accidently when winemakers may have thought some of their fermentations were done when they really were not. After enclosing their vessels, pressure developed inside and the wines became bubbly. Today, Champagne production, or Méthode Champenoise, is simply a highly refined version of the phenomenon that has taken wine with bubbles to an art form. While pét-nat can be taken just as seriously as any other style, to me it feels more like a casual street method. I don’t think we will ever see vendors on street corners selling Champagne out of croissant carts. But pét-nat?
There are some pitfalls to all of this, and on bottling day you really need to have your act together. Essentially, if you bottle too early, you may develop more pressure than the bottles can handle. Indeed, I have heard horror stories from winemakers who had all of their recently-bottled pét-nat laying in storage bins when a bottle exploded, setting off a chain reaction which decimated almost the entire lot. Can you imagine? In 2018, I actually made two pét-nats, this Sparkling Clairette, and a Blanc de Noirs from estate grown Pinot. While my Pinot didn’t explode, half of it did leak because we did not apply robust enough bottle caps. As a result, this was the first year that I have ever seen fruit flies survive through the winter over in the warehouse. In the bottles that didn’t leak, there is a beautiful sparkling wine, but with half the production lost we did not have enough to label and sell commercially. Welcome to the wine business! After using a very robust “Champagne Yeast” on the Pinot, its final fermentation took place in the bottle very rapidly. About three days after bottling, I was curious and wondering if there were any bubbles yet. So I went over to the warehouse, grabbed a bottle and took it back to the lab where I naively opened it, at room temperature! The next thing I knew, 2/3 of the bottle was on the ceiling. I stood there taking a Blanc de Noirs shower as my lab tech, Allyson, walked in with a look on her face like, ‘How long you been doing this again?’
This Sparkling Clairette is very pretty with subtle pear fruit, and bubbles that are consistent with most pét-nats -- a little bit bigger and with less of an all-out gush compared to Champagne. The other thing about pét-nats is that, due to the pressure that builds up, the tail end of fermentation does not always finish, and the wines may have a touch of residual sugar. As I write this here on Valentine’s Day 2019, I think I taste maybe ½% of residual sugar, just enough to accentuate the fruit and make it utterly delicious. By the time you receive this wine in the upcoming May shipment, it may very well be a little more dry and crisp, but my guess is that it will always have at least a touch of RS. This is an aspect of pét-nat wines that I really like. Each year is not totally predictable. As long as you don’t bottle too early or too late, you will end up with something with bubbles in it. Just how dry it is and how much it gushes is something that you have to explore upon opening it. Another thing I love about pét-nat is that there is never any SO2 added to the wine. Because it’s still fermenting when you bottle it, the addition of any kind of preservative at that point is not appropriate and would hinder the fermentation process. And from an oxidation standpoint, the wine shouldn’t see any degradation for years. Any oxygen in the equation was kicked out during fermentation, and now that the wine is bottled, no oxygen can get in. The bottom line is that there is always a theme of freshness with pét-nats.
You will notice that, similar to my radical En tirage versions of Eye Of The Beholder Rosé, this pét-nat has some sediment in the bottle, a remnant of the fact that fermentation finished there. While Eye Of The Beholder was a winemaking style that was built on this sediment, and lots of it, most pét-nats have only a slight sediment. In other words, the bottle won’t turn into mud if you shake it up. Upon opening, the bubbles will tend to mix the wine, but it maxes out at a slight haze, and there is no need to decant. Just pop and serve. The bottles are crown capped, so opening is with a bottle opener, not a corkscrew. Make sure you chill this thing down really well just like you would a bottle of Champagne.You don’t want to wear the stuff. You want to drink it.
Finally, the thing I love the most about this project is the beautiful label that Lisa has designed. Bubbles in a Love Garden--perfect! This is now our official label for the production of all future rosé and sparkling wines.