Pét-nats have been popping up on wine lists across the city. Simple, fizzy, fresh, these crown-capped sparkling wines are alive.
Though pét-nat wine originated in southwestern France, winemakers in other parts of the world, including one in Peru, Illinois, are giving this versatile, sparkling style a go as consumer interest trends toward more natural, minimally manipulated wines.
Pét-nats (aka pétillant naturel wines, meaning “naturally bubbly” in English) are sparkling wines made in a manner that predates even the “traditional method” used in Champagne, France, since the late 17th century.
Unlike the traditional Champagne method, which calls for a second fermentation with additional sugar and yeast, pét-nat winemakers implement the méthode ancestrale, allowing the initial fermentation to finish in the bottle without any additives. Rather than induce a second fermentation in the bottle, pét-nat winemakers bottle the wine before the initial fermentation has ended.
The result: an easygoing, softly sparkling wine that’s sometimes lightly sweet from residual grape sugars, sometimes hazy with unfiltered yeast particles and always easy to drink.
Illinois Sparkling Co. has been producing pét-nats since 2018, when they rolled out their extra-brut Pét Nat Rosé made from the Chambourcin grapes, a French American hybrid grape variety that has found a fit in the Midwest climate despite both temperature and precipitation extremes.
Mark Wenzel was working as a mechanical engineer when he and his wife, Teri, decided to take over the family farm and make the leap into grape growing and winemaking in 2002. The couple founded August Hill Winery, and later, sister brand Illinois Sparkling Co., on the same 4 acres once farmed by Mark’s grandfather, August Engelhaupt, in the riverside town of Peru.
The winery’s vineyard is situated on a hillside, on land that has been in the Wenzel family for over 100 years. During the harvest season, the wooded valley stretching beyond the hill, toward the banks of the Illinois River, takes on autumn’s red and orange hues. At the top of the hill, a tall oak tree, likely as old as the farm itself, surveys the rows upon rows of grapevines that line the hill’s slope.
“My grandfather grew corn, soybeans and a small amount of hay here, never grapes,” Wenzel said. “When we realized that the soil, climate and airflow make this land … ideal for a vineyard, we did a deep tillage the year before planting. Then our family and friends stepped up to help us plant the vineyard.”
Initially, Wenzel and his team planted 36 grape varieties. “Brianna, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Geneva Red, La Crescent, Marquette, Noiret, Prairie Star and St. Pepin are just a few of the varieties we successfully grew. Ultimately, we discovered that French-hybrid grapes — La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac, Marquette and Frontenac Blanc — thrive here in northern Illinois.”
Wenzel already had pét-nats on his radar when his friend and colleague Eduard Seitan of Chicago’s One Off Hospitality challenged him to create a natural, sparkling wine.
Today, Illinois Sparkling Co. offers three pét-nats: creamy, light ruby-tinged Pét-Nat Rosé, made with Illinois Chambourcin grapes; Back to Back, an extra-brut pét-nat made with Frontenac Gris and La Crescent grapes; and Illnatic, a pale, white gold pét-nat with notes of pear, apple cider and grapefruit, made with Illinois Chardonel grapes.
The pét-nat process at Illinois Sparkling Co. begins with a light pressing of the grapes. Juice is extracted with a bladder press and fermented for seven to 10 days. When the juice is 75% fermented, winemakers Mark Wenzel and Sarah Hall halt the fermentation process by chilling the wine down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the wine is cold stable, they let it warm up again, thus reigniting fermentation. When the wine has 12 grams per liter of sugar left, it’s time to bottle. Fermentation continues in the bottle, creating the gentle bubbles and ever-evolving nature that pét-nat drinkers adore.
“Pét-nats are unfiltered, minimal intervention wines, so their styles vary more than other sparkling wines of the world,” said Colin Hofer, 2022 Michelin Sommelier of the Year and general manager of Adorn, the Four Seasons Chicago’s in-hotel restaurant and bar. “They can be pithy and very textural, which goes great with food, and are lower in alcohol than other sparklers, which means you can enjoy more without the notorious Champagne headache. I like to think of them as fun, uncomplicated bubbles.”
With a wine list featuring the best wines in the world, Hofer is focusing more on similarly high-caliber wines, albeit produced with minimal intervention.
“Living in a cold climate makes me appreciate farmers and winemakers in similar regions producing sparkling wine and pét-nats,” Hofer said. “I think it’s a great opportunity and fun juxtaposition between having rare luxury Champagne like Salon and Selosse offered alongside these smaller producers who are operating out of regions no one has heard of; they’re pushing the boundaries of wine just as Selosse and Salon have done in the past.”
At Daisies, a Logan Square farm-to-table eatery that reimagines classic Italian cuisine with Midwest-grown ingredients, pét-nats were a natural addition to the sparkling menu.
“At Daisies, we highlight wines from small, independent, sustainably minded makers,” said Leah Matthews, the restaurant’s wine program manager. “We love Illinois Sparkling Co.; we’ve been pouring their Champagne method rosé by the glass for years.”
Matthews first tried Illinois Sparkling Co.’s pét-nats when she celebrated her birthday with a visit to the August Hill Tasting Room in downtown Utica, Illinois. “I love that each bottle of pét-nat sets off on its very own fermentation journey, creating a unique drinking experience.”
“We pair the Illnatic with our porchetta di testa; the busy bubbles texturally go hand in hand with the marbled cut of pork,” Matthews said. “The ISC Pét-Nat Rosé, with its red fruit notes, bright acidity, touch of salinity and savory undertones, pairs beautifully with our fall pork collar with butternut squash purée, charred apple mostarda and fried sage leaves.”
Since they’re sealed with crown caps instead of corks, pét-nats are easy to spot in stores, including at BottlesUp! wine shop in East Lakeview.
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“I appreciate anything that helps make the wine world more approachable for people, and I think pét-nats do that,” said BottlesUp! owner Melissa Zeman. “They’re fun and fresh, which is initially inviting, but they also often lead to conversations about how the wine is made, stories about the producer, etc. Getting the world to think and care a bit more about what it’s drinking is always a plus.”
Zeman suggests beer lovers give pét-nats a go, too. “I recommend pét-nats to sour beer lovers. And absolutely cider drinkers. I’m seeing more and more pét-nats being made by co-fermenting wine grapes with apples, pears and other fruits.”
Pét-nats vary from bottle to bottle, said Owen Huzar, Adorn’s head sommelier at the Four Seasons.
“Pét-nats are the Russian roulette of wine,” he said. “I recommend pét-nats to the adventuresome wine lover, the wine lover inherently curious about the world of wine.”
“If you like to explore and like sparkling wine, you are going to like pét-nats,” Hofer agreed. “And because of their raw, minimal intervention nature, you can find some of the most expressive terroir-driven pét-nats from regions you’ve never heard of, which appeals to my inner explorer.”
Amy Bizzarri is a freelance writer.