Summer is sparkler season, sure. But it doesn't have to be a choice between fussy luxuries and industrial mimosa fodder. There's a new, exciting movement among young winemakers that has roots as old as wine itself.
We're talking peasant fizz—bottle-fermented, farmhouse sparklers capped like a beer bottle. They're lower-cost artisan bubblers for which "weird" is meant as a compliment.
As with many things, the French have a word for it: pétillant-naturel, often shortened to the two-syllable shorthand "pét-nat." It's made especially in the Loire Valley, far from the grand châteaux of Bordeaux or the prized plots of Burgundy.
The best thing about these wines is their wonderfully distinctive flavors. Fizzy, refreshing, and a little different from bottle to bottle, these are wines for farmhouse beer lovers—people who aren't afraid of a little funk.
"These kinds of wines offer an entirely different experience from Champagne," says Stephanie Sprinkle of E&R Wine Shop in John's Landing. "These pét-nat wines are made on the farm. It's an ancient method, probably even accidental in the beginning, and there's no need for special equipment, which is great for winemakers who are naturally curious and love to play."
The next best thing about these wines is that unlike Champagne—which can cost hundreds of dollars at the high end—even the finest bottle-fermented sparklers top out at about $30 a bottle, and often run closer to $20.
"The process is less labor-intensive than a more formal sparkling wine," says winemaker Kate Norris of Portland's Gamine Wines and Southeast Wine Collective, whose grenache rosé pét-nat is one of Oregon's best. "That's part of why the price point is nice and approachable."
Gamine's 2014 pét-nat is tough to find, although there are bottles lurking around town if you know where to look. Norris' 2015 pét–nat drops this summer.
This style of fizzy peasant wine is gaining attention not only in Oregon but worldwide—especially in Italy, where there is a long and varied sparkling-winemaking tradition, whether "frizzante" or the delicious world of bottle-fermented lambrusco.
"The closest equivalent of pét-nat in Italy would be 'metodo ancestrale'" says Dana Frank, the award–winning sommelier responsible for the remarkable all–Italian wine list at Ava Gene's in Southeast Portland. Frank will soon open a spot called Dame devoted to organic and biodynamic wines—including about 20 different sparkling wines—on Northeast Killingsworth Street in the former Cocotte.
"These wines are about drinking something fun and wild and fresh," Sprinkle says. "They're not contemplative; they're casual, juicy and delicious."
Here are some favorites from Oregon, Italy and France, and four good places to find them around town.
Pastaworks at City Market
735 NW 21st Ave., 503-221-3007, pastaworks.com.
The small but mighty sparkling-wine selection at Pastaworks punches above its weight class, with some especially deep cuts at City Market. In a world of weird, delicious fizzy wine, the ones made by Camillo Donati in Emilia-Romagna (see sidebar) have earned a worldwide cult following. Other cool wines here include La Stoppa's delicious, deeply strange sparkling Malvasia ($17, also from Italy). For a bit of comparison and contrast, pick up the La Stoppa along with a bottle of Oregon winemaker Brianne Day's Mamacita ($25), another cloudy, beautiful wine made from the Malvasia grape.
1610 NW Glisan St., 503-223-6002, vinopoliswineshop.com.
Vinopolis, an endless holy temple of wine, is home to one of Portland's best selections of peasant fizz. The shop stocks a regular supply of Johan Vineyards' pét-nat of pinot noir ($21.90), a wine that defies any preconceived notions you might have about what Oregon pinot can be. Another smart buy is from Loire Valley producer Philippe Tessier, whose Phil'en Bulle pét-nat ($24) is a total food wine, able to hang with backyard barbecue but hold its own alongside pickles or fermented Korean fare.
3564 SE Division St., 503-234-7281.
Already one of Portland's best wine shops, Division Wines is gearing up to become a full-fledged bar this summer. In the meantime, the back wall (and the fridge) are stocked with awesome sparkling wines from near and far, some exceedingly hard to find. Three of Oregon's best pét-nat wines are on the shelf here: sparkling biodynamic rosé of pinot noir from Maysara ($26); grenache rosé by Gamine ($28); and sparkling sauvignon blanc by Statera ($23), a buzzy new winemaker producing exceedingly small quantities of sought-after Oregon wines. Local favorites aside, you should pick up a bottle of Prosecco "Col Fondo" by Casa Costa Piane ($24).
E&R Wine Shop
6141 SW Macadam Ave., 503-246-6101, erwineshop.com.
Hidden in a strip mall off Macadam, E&R Wine Shop is home to a truly special Champagne and sparkling-wine selection, curated by wine buyer Stephanie Sprinkle. This is one of a few places in town you'll find the "pet sec" from Les Capriades ($25), a winery in the Loire Valley that specializes in "methode ancestrale," low-ABV sparkling wines. Pet sec is made from chenin blanc and cabernet franc, and will disappear as soon as the crown cap is popped—especially if you, say, open it at work on a Thursday afternoon. E&R also sells a crown-capped white bubbler from Agricola Menti Giovanni called "Roncaie sui Lieviti" ($15, see below) that tastes like nothing else.
Drink These Great Peasant Wines
We tasted several kinds of peasant fizz for this article, in a group of enthusiastic but decidedly amateur wine drinkers. Here are five favorites, all purchased in Portland.
Camillo Donati "Malvasia Rosa," $26 at Pastaworks at City Market.
This was the consensus favorite among the wines we tasted. Donati's bottle-fermented Malvasia Rosa tastes like strawberry cream soda, white pepper, and brettanomyces ale. It can't technically be called a lambrusco, but it's from the same region. It's as if lambrusco and farmhouse ale had a delicious, funky baby. I actively debated leaving this wine out of the article for my own hoarding purposes.
Johan Vineyards Pinot Noir Pétillant Naturel, $21.90 at Vinopolis.
Effervescent, unctuous, peppery, glowing sunset orange in color and deceptively easy to drink, this wine is both a conversation piece for your next hang and an everyday chill–out drinker. Accessible, agreeable, perfect for beer geeks—Johan's is not the only great Oregon pét-nat, but it is my favorite. This is another great wine for farmhouse beer fans, with layered flavors like peach, white pepper and red fruits balanced by intriguing, fermenty funk.
Agricola Menti Giovanni "Roncaie sui Lieviti," $15 at E&R Wine Shop.
Natural-yeast garganega grapes are pressed into stainless-steel tanks, then fermentation occurs in the bottle after adding grape resin, with no added sulfites. The resulting wine is barnyard as fuck, spiritually close to farmhouse ale, and redolent with flavors of pastry crust, honey and apple juice. Nothing else quite tastes like this, with differences from bottle to bottle and sip to sip. And you can drink it with anything from pizza to pork chops to popcorn, or just by itself. Also, holy shit, how is this only $15?
Maysara Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé, $26 at Division Wines.
This is wine for a Nalgene bottle floating down the river. Our group tasting notes included Fruit by the Foot, umeboshi, Fruit Stripe gum, garam masala, and Smarties candy.
Domaine Belluard "Les Perles du Mont Blanc," $25 at Division Wines.
This is really elegant and structured wine, made in the far southeast of France in the "methode traditionnelle" style, closer to Champagne production. Someone in our group called out "Sweedeedee honey pie" as a note, and that's about right. It was one of our favorites.