It could be the perfect fizz to enjoy on your vacation. Pet-nats (pétillant naturel) are fresh, easy-to-drink lightly sparkling wines, usually aged for a short period of time and topped with crown cap closures —a rival to beer on your ice-bucket? And with their casual, fun labels, they can be the perfect drink for young people to embrace wine.
Spain has its own word for pet-nats: ancestrales. It evoques the artisan way of producing bubbles prior to the discovery and industrialisation of the traditional or champenoise method which implies two separate fermentations.
Cava or champagne is made by adding yeasts and sugar to a still base wine. The idea is to capture the carbon dioxide (bubbles) produced during the second fermentation in individual bottles. The process for ancestrales or pet-nats is much shorter. The wine is fermented in a vessel —stainless steel tanks, oak vats, clay amphorae, barrels…— and bottled prior to fully completing its first fermentation. Carbon dioxide is produced by the natural sugars found in the grapes.
As in other countries, ancestrales are closely linked to natural wines. For Fernando Angulo, a fizz lover who started producing pet-nats in 2014 after becoming aware of the strong connection between chalky soils in Champagne and Jerez, “if the wine is not natural, it cannot be called an ancestral”.
However, a tasting* of different Spanish pet-nats revealed more diversity than expected. Most wines were provided by Cuvée 3000, a specialist merchant which probably manages the most extensive natural wine portfolio in Spain. We are also grateful to other producers who kindly sent samples for the tasting.
The first thing to be said is that the category is tiny and that there is no reliable data about its size. While artisan winemaking naturally limits availability, the wines are usually restricted to the distribution channels of natural wine. Among the sommeliers who took part in the tasting, David Villalón from Angelita Madrid is the only one who regularly offers pet-nats to his clients. Kabuki Wellington, a Japanese restaurant with a strong focus on sparkling wines only lists one, just the same as El Supremo Bar de Vinos, a casual wine bar near Colón square in Madrid.
Consumers may appreciate their fresh, easy-drinking nature that makes the suitable for many casual moments. After all, these are straightforward, fruit-driven wines with low to moderate alcohol and the sparkle, festive-mood provided by the bubbles. It doesn’t take much to cool down a bottle, open it and enjoy.
Winemakers face the challenge to strictly work with the grapes as they come from the vineyard. “This is one of the most pure, less intrusive ways of making wine as it requires little intervention,” says Salvador Batlle from Còsmic Vinyaters in Empordà, who produces three ancestrales in his range.
“This method is purely Mediterranean. We have the sunlight and the climate to achieve full ripeness in our grapes,” adds Mariano Taberner from Bodegas Cueva in Requena (Valencia), who produces around 15,000 bottles with four different labels.
“My interest in sparkling wines is based in the vineyard, not the method. Perhaps, ancestral sparkling wines are more faithful to the place,” speculates Pepe Raventós who has made a name for himself producing classical sparkling wines under the Raventós i Blanc brand. He is now also using grapes grown at the family estate in Penedès to produce natural wines, including an ancestral, in his home garage. Ancestrales are also produced at Can Sumoi, a large property recently acquired by the family in La Juncosa del Montmell (Tarragona, Baix Penedès).
Simple wines, albeit not easy to make. There is this crucial moment of transferring the wine to the bottle: “These wines must be bottled on a specific day, and you cannot miss it,” says Mariano Taberner. Ismael Gozalo from MicroBio Wines, who makes up to five different pet-nats in Segovia, goes even further: “Producing ancestral wines means you have to sleep in the cellar.” He works in an artisan way meaning that he may have to bottle at dawn. “There is no room for changes,” he continues. “In three months’ time you start disgorging and realise that each bottle is a world in itself.”
Taberner mentions the difficulty of making fully dry wines. “Fermentation sometimes stops in winter,” he says and points out how important it is to achieve powerful, well-nourished yeasts. When wine is transferred to the bottle these yeasts are at the final stage of their life.
In blends, ripening times must be monitored closely. Toni Carbó compares Mas Candí’s Tinc Set, a blend of Xarel.lo and Parellada which he and his partner Ramón Jané have come to master, with Roig Boig, the rosé he produces under his own venture La Salada. In the case of Tinc Sec they started working with Macabeo but realised that Parellada worked better. But Roig Boig “is a blend of many different grape varieties; I have to let my intuition guide me, but it is crazy nevertheless; that’s why the name translates as ‘crazy red’.”
Before the wine is bottled. As the vast majority of ancestrales are natural wines there are many different ways of starting fermentation. Choices vary from skin-maceration (Còsmic Paciència) and skin-contact fermentations as in an orange wine (Brutal Moscatel & Macabeo from Cueva, Loxarel A Pèl) to using a wide range of containers: stainless steel, clay vessels (Loxarel, Cosmic) or even oak (Corneo from Bodega Frontio in Arribes). Undoubtedly, most of these procedures have an impact on the resulting wine.
Ageing. Most pet-nats spend a few months with their lees. Mariano Taberner doesn’t like to go beyond six months. From his point of view, this style of wine is not about ageing. “These are not fine lees, so on the long term you may get unpleasant aromas.”
Many producers start releasing their pet-nats by the end of the year. In that regard, it’s not that different to Cava or other traditional sparkling wines which may be disgorged under request. When it comes to ancestrales, it is also common to find different batches with ageing times ranging from three to four months to almost one year.
There is no set practice though. Fernando Angulo, who started producing his wines in 2014, thinks that “short or extended aging result in different things.” He particularly likes how the wines develop on the two or three years after disgorgement. For Salvador Batlle, “the wines gain finesse and complexity provided that they have been properly disgorged and a good cork is used.” No wonder the name of his Cariñena Blanca Ancestral is Paciència (patience) —the use of old vines and skin maceration are meant to add complexity.
We had the opportunity to taste two wines which had been aged for extended periods: five years in the case of Taïka 2013 (means “magical” in Finish) from Castell d’Encús and 36 months the Gentelmant Sumoll from Clos Lentiscus. The world of wine is full of exceptions.
To disgorge or not to disgorge; that is the question. Josep Mitjans left the DO Cava because he was not allowed to release a sparkling wine that had been aged for 100 months without being disgorged. He is one of the few Spanish pet-nat producers who skips this step. Instead, he racks the wine several times in clay vessels while fermentation is underway. “In the end,” he says, “the wine is neither bright nor cloudy. Racking helps the wine to open up, pick up oxygen and yeasts perform better. Another benefit is that you don’t loose pressure,” he added.
Pepe Raventós never disgorges the wines produced in his garage, which are aged between one to two years. Instead, for the wines he makes in Can Sumoi, he studies each case. But generally speaking, most producers we have talked to favour disgorgement —some of them may even disgorge twice if necessary. Disgorgement doesn’t translate into pristine wines in the glass. Cloudiness is a common feature in the pet-nats.
Cork vs crown cap. Choices here vary a great deal too. Fernando Angulo and Mariano Taberner are great advocates of crown caps. “I find them reassuring, they hold up well, I like them best and it is a way to mark a difference with Cava and Champagne,” says Taberner. Interestingly enough and following their non-disgorgement philosophy, Loxarel use both. Cork is usually preferred for wines that are expected to have cellaring potential.
Pressure. Compared with other sparkling wines like Cava and Champagne which are released at six atmospheres, pressure is usually lower in pet-nats given that they loose between two and three atmospheres during disgorgement. This is why you may find that bubbles a bit weaker in pet-nats. They usually fade out faster too.
Drinking window. David Villalón, co-owner and sommelier at Angelita Madrid, recommends drinking the wines as fresh as posible in order to avoid risks. But there are always exceptions. According to Salvador Battle, sommelier Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, from El Celler de Can Roca, stocks the 2015 vintage of Paciència because he says it is at its peak.
Can a pet-nat be Cava? Well, this seems contradictory given that Cava is defined as a sparkling wine made following the traditional method. But we know of at least two producers who sell their ancestrales with the Cava seal: Els Vinyerons in Penedès and the Pujol-Busquets family with their Bruant and Capsigrany made in their property facing the sea in Alella, south of Barcelona. The trick is that the first wine that gets the Consejo’s approval is a sweet or semi-sweet wine, which are established categories within the appellation.
Flaws. We repeatedly came across a specific flaw which all tasters agreed that ruined the enjoyment of the wines. Mousiness or “gôut de souris”, as is called in French, is caused by lactic acid bacteria and regularly appears in wines with no SO2 added. It is usually described as “mouse cage” but I experience it as a combination of bitter, spoiled dried fruits and wet paper. It is present on the palate, not the nose and can stubbornly remain on the aftertaste, which is not a nice experience. All pet-nat producers are aware of the risks and take it as part of the challenge, but it doesn’t change the fact that consumers are right to demand flawless wines on the basis of their understanding of the different styles.
This selection is meant to serve as an introduction to the category in Spain. We hope that consumers, including the most traditional, may find a Spanish pet-nat that suits their taste.
Tinc Set, Mas Candí, Penedès. A textbook, great-value, flawless ancestral. Fresh, fruit-driven with well-integrated bubbles (the producers have previous experience with Cava) and really easy to drink. The name and the fun label fulfill the expectations. Tinc set means “I’m thirsty” in Catalan. No sulfites have been added. Cork stopper. The rosé version Roig Boig made by La Salada is a bit more unusual and daring, but really expressive.
Find this wine for €8.85 at Cuvée 3000.
Els Vinyerons Pregadéu Xarel.lo, Cava. Aged fro 18 months, this wine is more classical (toasted bread, yeasts, creamy notes), but also fresh and well-made. It tastes like a low-intervention, medium-aged Cava and in fact it bears the seal of the appellation. A good introduction to pet-nats for those willing to remain in their comfort zone. SO² below 20 g/l. Cork stopper.
Find this wine for €8,05 at Cuvée 3000.
Taïka 2013, Castell d’Encús, Costers del Segre. A great exception given that it is made by Raül Bobet, who makes his wine with a scientific approach. The challenges: taking aging up to five years and achieving six atmospheres of pressure. This a blend of fully-ripe Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grown at high altitude on the Pyrenees. While the elevation provides acidity, the fully ripe grapes add a wealth of aromas to offset the toasted yeast notes. The wine is fresh, pure and citrusy, with lots of tension, small, well-integrated bubbles and bright acidity. A must-try for sparkling wine lovers. Cork stopper.
Find this wine for €37.95 at Ideavinos.
Nieva York 2018, Microbio Wines. This is probably one of the safest choices within the artisan, no sulfites-added category. The humorous name referring to the village of Nieva (Segovia) where this producer is based is an element of conversation in itself. Fresh, lively, citrus character with vibrant acidity and well-integrated bubbles. Grapes are harvested relatively early. Super enjoyable. Crown cap closure.
Find this wine for €17.95 at Cuvée 3000.
Brutal Moscatel & Macabeo, Bodega Cueva. Lots of character thanks to the distinctive aromas of Moscatel and the energetic, herbal, honeyed touch resulting from fermenting grapes with their skins. Bubbles are weaker in this case but the palate is fuller given that the tannic character of skins. Perhaps not a crowd-pleaser but this is a really expressive introduction to other, more radical yet seamless styles. No sulfites added. Crown cap closure.
Paciència Carinyena Blanca, Cosmic Vinyaters, Empordà. Perhaps the wine was not at its best as there were some oxidative and cider notes at the beginning that evolved towards ripe peach aromas. Its main strength is its consistence and depth provided by the old vines it comes from. It also showed potential to develop in bottle. A pet-nat to follow up. No added sulfites. Cork closure.
Find this wine for €32.50 at Vinissimus.
A Pèl Barba-Roja, Loxarel, Penedès. The latest release from a producer based in Penedès who uses clay vessels for his natural wines. The range A Pél (pel means hair in Catalan) features bold men on its labels. The one who appears here is a good friend of winemaker Josep Mitjans who agreed to have his head shaved for the occasion. Compared to the seamless single-varietal Xarel.lo, this rosé that blends Sumoll, Xarel.lo Vermell and Garnacha tastes more exuberant (pear aromas, vibrant acidity, excellent mousse) and energetic. No added sulfites; no disgorgement; cork and crown cap closures, all in one.
Find this wine for €16 at Vinus Brindis (Barcelona).
Vinya del Mas Ancestral 2015, Pepe Raventós. This pet-nat is part of the new range of natural wines made by Pepe Raventós in his home garage. Grapes are sourced from vineyards planted around the family house- this one is old vine Xarello grown just outside the kitchen. The wine appeared somewhat cloudy given that it had not been disgorged, but the palate was broad and deep with honeyed, toasted notes and a medicinal-like character. No SO² added. Cork stopper.
Find this wine for €32.85 at Vila Viniteca.
*Many thanks to Cuvée 3000 for providing samples and allowing us to use their offices for the tasting and to all the producers who sent their wines. The Cuvée 3000 team in Madrid and the sommeliers who joined us offered valuable information and comments on the wines. The group included Jean Marcos, Laurence Perea and Cristina González from Cuvée 3000, David Villalón (Angelita Madrid), Jorge Thuillier (Kabuki Wellington), Álvaro (El Supremo Tribunal de Vinos) and Mariano Gargiulo (Picsa).