I feel like we’ve been talking about a lot of pét nats recently, without actually talking about pét nats. If that makes any sense?
Looking back at recent reviews, the trio from Berryland that we covered yesterday were pét nats, as were the trio from Welsh Mountain Cider on Saturday. The four from Gould were, one of the French curiosities was, and I’ve three more to look at today. August has been a pét nat-heavy month, and I think that’s representative of the increasing presence of pét nat ciders on the modern British aspirational cider market.
So what is pét nat? Well, it’s exactly what it says on the tin, only in this instance the tin is labelled in French. Pét nat is the abbreviated form of pétillant naturel (you are legally obliged to use italics if you type a French term out in full) which simply means “naturally sparkling”.
The naturel is, as you’d expect, important. Most methods of carbonating a drink, be it cider, perry, wine, water or coke, require a degree of intervention. Either in the form of a machine which “force-carbonates” the liquid, simply bubbling carbon dioxide into it, or, in the case of bottle conditioning and the traditional method, through the addition of a sugar source to induce a secondary fermentation in bottle.
Where pét nat differs is that the drink is bottled before its primary fermentation is completed, when there is still residual sugar in the liquid itself. Poured into the bottle without any pasteurisation or cold filtration to kill off the yeasts, the fermentation continues, sugar is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go and hey presto, carbonated cider or perry.
The obvious challenge for the pét nat maker, as you may have guessed, is knowing exactly the right point at which to bottle the liquid. Leave it too late and there won’t be enough residual sugar to induce much further fermentation and you end up with something high on nat but low on pét. Worse though (and potentially even dangerously for the consumer) is when too much fermentation continues in the bottle, and the cider becomes a volcano-in-waiting, patiently biding its time before the unwary consumer comes at it with a bottle opener and finds their kitchen doused in foam and stickiness within about two seconds. (Just ask James – he had to redecorate his after one experience). The annoyed cider (or wine or perry) drinker is left not only with stains up the walls and on the ceiling, but with only half of what they paid for left in the bottle – and here, more often than not, I am speaking entirely literally. Occasionally, the continued fermentation can even build up so much pressure that the bottle can’t cope and it explodes. Though I should add that, given pét nats are often bottled in very thick glass, this is rare in the extreme and not something I’ve had happen to any of the ciders I’ve ever bought.
The risk of a so-called “gusher” is exacerbated by the near-inevitable presence of sediment in pét nats. Given they’re poured mid-fermentation into the bottle, it’s almost unavoidable that particles of solids will be carried in with them, and indeed the continued fermentation means that a small number of yeast cells will fall out of suspension as sediment as well, and these solids contribute to what’s known as nucleation points.
Nucleation points are vital to carbonated drinks – without them you wouldn’t see bubbles at all. Bubbles of carbon dioxide begin to be formed when the carbon dioxide is ‘disturbed’ by an etching or defect in your glass. (This is why champagne flutes traditionally had a defect deliberately carved in the bottom of their bowl). Pieces of sediment can also make up nucleation points and so when there is a large amount of sediment, as there can be in pét nats without careful racking, a combination of pressure and excess nucleation can result in quite a lot of swearing at the number of dripping surfaces your home has suddenly acquired.
The warmer the liquid is, the greater the effect of this gushing will be, which is why many a pét nat will carry on its label a caution to ensure that you chill well before opening. But even judicious refrigeration isn’t a guarantee of stress-free cap-popping, so good general advice is to open your pét nats near a sink unless you are very, very confident in the producer behind it. And probably even then. I’ve moaned before about the number of overenthusiastic pét nats on the market and I dare say they’ll just increase as the style becomes more popular.
On a more positive note, once the will-it-won’t-it trepidation of getting the bottle open is over and done with, pét nats are often wonderful joyous things that can take you in any direction in terms of flavour. They can be, and are, made from any variety of apple, so ‘pét nat’ alone on a label won’t tell you much about what to expect in terms of taste, and the nature of their fermentation means that, whilst traditional-method drinks are likely to show a bready, biscuity inflection from their time on a significant quantity of lees, pét nats will generally be all about pure fruit. (Though many folk have observed that, in addition to nucleation, pét nats in which a large amount of sediment has made it into the bottle will often give off pronounced and divisive yeasty notes).
Pét nats have become a favourite for natural producers, and a method played with by cidermakers right across the world. So today, rather than sticking to a quartet from just one maker, I thought we’d investigate four from disparate locations, in the hope of demonstrating some of that diversity of flavour.
I’m starting in the West Country, specifically Devon, with Find & Foster, who we’ve met a couple of times before. Polly and her husband Mat have turned their hand to several different styles of sparkling cider, each dictated by the characteristics of their constituent apple. When it comes to traditional method ciders they like to use earlier-ripening, low-tannin, higher acid apples without over-dominant flavour characteristics. For their keeves (although sparkling keeves also tend to be a species of pét nat – see our taxonomy for more on this) they mainly use high-tannin, richly-flavoured bittersweets, and with the apples that fall into the space between these two camps they make pét nats, such as the Snicket I reviewed here in May.
Like Snicket, today’s bottle, Allan 2020, saw its juice fermented in contact with the pomace of the apples, to enhance flavours and aromatics through the additional concentration of phenolics contained in their skins. It’s a blend of varieties including Kingston Black, Browns, Yarlington and Dabinett, including some apples picked from a tree that had died after the apples had ripened, leaving them partially dried and especially concentrated. Allan was named after the winner of a competition the cidery ran, and is aimed at landing somewhere between the structure and acidity of Snicket, and the richness of flavour of another of their pét nats, Pendragon. Bottles cost £14 from Find & Foster themselves, or £16 from The Fine Cider Company. Full disclosure, Polly kindly sent me a bottle, but I’ve also bought three with my own money, so you can make of that what you will.
Find & Foster Allan 2020 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled, as indicated on the website (a touch I really appreciate)
Appearance: Hazy amber. Just the lightest, lightest sparkle. A spritz really
On the nose: Lovely, vibrant and orangey. Marriage of brightness and juicy depth puts me in mind of Welsh Mountain’s Prospect, but this is softer, perhaps more overtly juicy. Apple skins, nectarine and apricot. There’s big orange wine energy here. Love it.
In the mouth: Beautiful texture. Perhaps a fraction off-dry, and that sweetness marries perfectly with the light seam of cat’s-tongue tannin. Juicy, peachy, orangey fruit, ripe red apple juice heading towards tropical tones. Pure summer. Huge flavour intensity and a tremendous softness, with just the right nip of orange tangfastic acidity to keep things elegant and clean-lined.
In a nutshell: Delicious stuff. Perhaps my favourite pét nat from Find & Foster yet.
Heading across to East Sussex now, we find Starvecrow for the first time since May of last year. The cidery wing of much-vaunted Tillingham Wines, perhaps England’s most talked-about natural winemaker, Starvecrow ciders are made by Ben Walgate from mainly culinary fruit grown by Steve Reeve.
All you’d expect they’ve experimented with various methods and maturations over the years they’ve been making, including different barrels, co-fermentation and even qvevri ageing (huge amphora-shaped clay vessels that are buried in the ground and have been a feature of Georgian winemaking for centuries – if not millennia). And given their natural wine credentials it’s not surprising that they’ve given pét nats a go, too.
The label of this one is rather sparse on detail concerning making, and doesn’t detail the vintage, though I learn that it’s made with Bramley, Golden, Jonagold and Braeburn apples, and that it’s unfined, unfiltered and bottled without sulphites. On the Fine Cider Co website a 2019 is retailing at £29 for 3 bottles, but without any indication of what vintage my bottle is (the abv appears to be the same) I can’t tell you whether I’m reviewing exactly that cider. So caveat emptor and caveat me, too.
Starvecrow Pét Nat – review
How I served: Well-chilled, as directed by the label
Appearance: Light, hazy gold. Exuberant mousse (though didn’t spill over!)
On the nose: Higher-toned than the Find & Foster, as you’d expect from the apple varieties. Lemon and white grapefruit – skins and pith and juice – and a lot of honeysuckle. There’s also an intriguing, waxy, almost meaty topnote that adds complexity. Dough. The effect of lees and yeast no doubt, but not to excess. Unusual. A nose to conjure with. Perhaps just a fraction of volatility creeping in? I can’t decide – so it’s not much, if any.
In the mouth: Really bright, fresh acidity, Bramley adding big green and yellow zip. The mousse is creamy and, with no tannin, really adds to the fullness of body. Super refreshing. That enrichening meaty-waxy note adds depth to the bright fruit and florals. Not quite almondy/Fino-esque, but straying almost a little that way. Similar energy, if that makes sense. It’s all rather hard to pin down, but I finished the bottle later; that’s usually a good sign.
In a nutshell: An unusual expression of culinary fruit, but a very elegant one. A zesty and characterful aperitif (if possibly a crowd-splitter.)
Continuing our journey, we head across the Ocean, where we find Eve’s Cidery doing wonderful things around the Finger Lakes. I’ve admired their work a few times here now, even listing their Deridder 2019 pét nat in my Essential Case for 2020 last year. Along with Eden they’re top of my to-visit list if I can ever get over to the States, and I’d love to interview them for Cider Review one of these days to learn about their wild apple foraging, their orchards and their various methods.
The Emerald Necklace 2020 is sort of a successor to Deridder, but where Deridder was made with wild apples foraged from a single grove, The Emerald Necklace has been made from foraged fruit picked in various elevated locations at “the southern end of New York’s deep, glacially carved lakes”.
Eve’s The Emerald Necklace 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Clear, bright gold. Light fizz – in between the first two
On the nose: Huge, pure, intense aromatics of red apple and passion fruit and mango with an almost woodlands-after-the-rain tone sitting over the top. Has incredible clarity and definition of its perfume. Hard to imagine a more technically faultless natural nose.
In the mouth: Just a smidge off-dry and again that clarity and definition and poise is the star. Pure apple, but it’s apple writ tropical somehow – an exotic ripeness and weight to the fruit. Glorious zingy acidity and just the right pithy flutter of tannin. A knockout.
In a nutshell: There aren’t many people who make ciders of such consistent brilliance, elegance and precision as Eve’s. I *just* prefer Deridder, but that’s likely just preference. This is sensational, you should buy it.
Completing our set we come full circle and return to England’s West Country, albeit a little further north, in Somerset, where we find Wilding. We’ve met them a few times before, most recently when discussing methods and mindsets compared to their Somersetian neighbours, The Newt. Wilding are very dedicated to the natural approach, and although I’ve admired several of their ciders, I’ve struggled with one or two in the past as well.
But Dabinett and Foxwhelp 2019 sounds, on paper, right up my street. A bone dry bottling of two of my favourite apples – rich, plump, tannic, orangey Dabinett and electric, wild strawberry-scented Foxwhelp. Yes please. It’s the most expensive on our list today, at £58 for three from the Fine Cider Company (you can also do a bespoke mix if you just want one bottle – mine cost £20 at the Cider Salon). So expectations and critical thoughts will be calibrated accordingly, as usual.
Wilding Dabinett and Foxwhelp 2019 – review
How I served: The lightest of chills. Cellar temperature (if, unlike me, you have a cellar)
Appearance: Rich gold. Steady mousse – no explosions!
On the nose: Dabinett and Foxwhelp are two apples I know very well. What’s astonishing here is not just the deepest, richest, most complex nose of the four so far, but that these two apples have fused so completely. Neither is screaming themselves, rather they have melded into aromas wholly new. The reddishness of Foxwhelp and the orange of Dabinett have added massive peach and pineapple and pink grapefruit, plus complex new leather and spices. A whistle-clean, mesmerising expression of its varieties that I could nose all day.
In the mouth: Another that’s sensationally textured. Foxwhelp’s acid has dialled down and the grippier tannins of Dabinett have softened, but both are very much there, adding real grip and structure and life to the enormous peach and strawberry and just-pure-Lilt fruits. More of the pink grapefruit pith too, but in a dried, concentrated way. Plus those lovely, deep, almost oaky spices. Fizz is just at the right level. Underpinning it all is a lovely fresh wet rock minerality too. This is magnificent.
In a nutshell: Pulsing with pure, intense, faultless flavour, arresting texture and sheer life. Best Wilding I can remember having.
What a way to end the month. August seems to have been a charm for me – a far-higher-than-usual concentration of showstoppers. This quartet signs it off magnificently. There’s not a single one that I wouldn’t cheerfully drink again – in three cases I have bought additional bottles.
Diversity of flavour and style was mesmerising throughout – from the ripe, juicy, cleverly-structured elegance of the Allan to the seamless purity of the Emerald Necklace and the complex, completeness of the Wilding. A real showcase of what a marvellous thing pét nat cider can be.
Picking a favourite is more than usually tough, but with a gun to my head I’d choose the Wilding, with the Find & Foster just behind it and the other two nipping at their heels. But these are all so different in their moods and flavours, and in the occasions on which you’d drink them that ranking does them a disservice and misses the point. I feel very lucky to have tried them all. Another reminder that we’re living in a special time to be cider drinkers.