Ten years ago, English wine was over-run with ambitious landed-gentry-turned-farmers trying their hand at a new crop – with a handful of more serious players in the game (Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Chapel Down and Gusbourne to name a few). But in the decade since, the industry has shifted. Production has exploded, with 197 wineries producing almost nine million bottles (versus 124 responsible for three million in 2011). And with that boom, a new generation of winemakers has arrived, inspired to experiment. Ancre Hill started turning heads with biodynamics and orange wine in Wales. Ben Walgate left the security of Gusbourne to sink qvevri at Tillingham, near Rye. Urban wineries like Renegade, Blackbook, Vagabond and London Cru swung open their doors. English (and Welsh) wine found its funk.
Crown-cap casual and care-free, Pet Nat is a wine to glug, guzzle and gulp
Pet Nat is one of the styles that has fast found favour – and the lightly effervescent wine, bottled in the midst of its alcoholic fermentation to capture a sparkle, fits neatly into this scene. Firstly, it’s released and consumed young – i.e., it offers a quick return for start-up vignerons. Secondly, it lends itself to a minimal use of sulphur (the carbon dioxide created acts as a preservative). Lastly, it perfectly captures the mood of boundary-breaking natural wine. It’s a far cry from the stately sip-worthy prestige of English Quality Sparkling Wine. Crown-cap casual and care-free, Pet Nat is a wine to glug, guzzle and gulp.
While Pet Nat was born in the Loire and Jura, it’s become a calling-card for natural winemakers the world over. L.A.S. Vino winemaker Nic Peterkin (Margaret River, Australia) started making the style in 2018. Why? ‘There was demand,’ he says. ‘People want sparkling wine… Pet Nat answers the craving.’ For him, it fills the void between the expense of Champagne and ‘boring’ Prosecco. And, he adds, ‘It’s fun.’ It’s also a way for him to reach his ultimate target demographic, those young wine drinkers who may not instantly be willing to take the plunge on his Albino PNO, Pirate Blend or Chardonnay (AUS$55-80) – but, ‘at AUS$25-35, it gets people to discover the brand when they otherwise wouldn’t.’
While most producers tag this sparkling style onto their range, Tim Wildman MW has dedicated himself totally to Pet Nat. In 2014, the English Master of Wine set about making his first wine with 70-year-old dry-grown Grenache from Blewitt Springs, Australia. He’d made a bet with a friend and inspired by French styles imported by Caves de Pyrènes, he claims that Pet Nat was ‘the perfect choice for an unskilled chancer’. He was also stubbornly keen to prove that wine could be made without sulphur, at a time when Australians were rather suspect. He was one of just six producers making the style at the time; today he estimates there are somewhere between 200 and 300 – and he manages one of the biggest Pet Nat operations in the country.
Now back in the UK, he’s just picked the fruit for his second vintage of Lost in a Field – a new project that takes England’s hardy hybrids, rebranding them as ‘heritage varieties’ for his Frolic Pet Nat. One that, I should add, sold out in next to no time on release earlier this year.
He recently arranged a tasting of what he has named ‘Brít-Nat’ – all the ‘alternative’ sparkling being produced in the UK, encompassing both the growing Pet Nat category (the modish facelift of the ancestral method) and Col Fondo styles (often un-disgorged, traditional method wines). At The Sourcing Table in Peckham, a group of trade, sommeliers and press gathered to taste through 37 wines from 24 different producers across England and Wales.
Aromas vary from more classical citrus-fresh to savoury funk and Rubicon exoticism
Hailing from 17 different counties, the sheer diversity on show was fascinating – ranging from crystal-clear through hazy-cider-tinged to almost opaque purple shades. Aromas varied from more classical citrus-fresh to savoury funk and Rubicon exoticism. A small number strayed into faultiness, with brett and mousiness, but they were the absolute minority. The biggest problem was stability, with a handful of wines ‘gushing’ – fizzing upon opening, sometimes uncontrollably, rendering them commercially questionable.
The quality surpassed expectations, though – both for me and almost everyone in attendance. Many of the wines offered an easy appeal, a ‘smashability’ that would charm consumers of craft beer, kombucha and cocktails – but with a surprising finesse, particularly when it came to texture, in the best examples. The austerity of Britain’s cool climate occasionally shone through (not helped, perhaps, by the 2021 vintage), with biting acidity that would have benefited from dosage. The one serious hitch, perhaps, is price – with many of these wines sitting between £20-30, some even drifting to £40. At that level, the competition is tough.
That said, production of these slightly unpredictable wines is small – on average 200 cases, but fewer than 80 common. Altogether, only one per cent of UK sparkling wine production last year was ‘other’ than tank or traditional method, so it remains a niche in the industry. Are there better-value wines? Yes. Should you still try these ones? In my view, absolutely yes. Because, as any Pet Nat proponent will tell you, you’re guaranteed to have a good time drinking it.
Five British Pet Nat and alternative sparkling wines to try
Woolton Farm Pink Pet Nat 2021, Kent
I loved both the wines on show from this Kentish estate (the other was a Chardonnay Pet Nat, pictured above), offering texture and balance that really stood out. This 100% Pinot Noir has a lift of bright red berry fruit, with a chalky round texture and creamy feel, cut by a lemon-curd richness. The finish has an almost floral delicate finesse. Classic Pet Nat production, but disgorged to offer a clear wine. Only 600 bottles made.
Due for release in autumn 2022, £22; www.wooltonfarm.co.uk
Langham Zig Zag Col Fondo 2020 (from keg)
This Dorset-based producer’s Col Fondo is a blend of Chardonnay and Madeleine Angevine (from Dorset and Devon, respectively). Undisgorged, the Madeleine Angevine brings an aromatic lift, with a note reminiscent of white tea, but a roundness that is all Chardonnay. It’s bright and vibrant with melon, lemon pith and crunchy white peach, a creamy mousse, mineral line and zesty finish. Only made in keg.
Currently pouring at: Half Cut Market, London; Lilac, Lyme Regis; The Bottle, Newquay; 45 Queen Street, Penzance
Domaine Hugo Botley’s Col Fondo 2020, Wiltshire
This wine’s rather traditional label jars a little with the fashionable style, but beneath its conventional clothing is a delicious Col Fondo, inoculated with juice from the 2021 harvest. A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier and Gris, it is fresh and bright with chalky citrus and Granny Smith apple complemented by toasty notes and a moreish saline minerality.
Blackbook GMF 2019, Oxfordshire
This gushed a little on opening, but within an acceptable level for me. This is fine with a more subtle nose of white currant, white peach, green apple and lime. It’s the palate that really shone though, with textural complexity from oak and six months on lees yet vibrantly rich and limey acidity, building to a long, saline finish. 100% Seyval Blanc sourced from Oxfordshire and made in London, it’s self-declared Col Fondo, but disgorged and designed for early release.
Lost in a Field Frolic Pet Nat 2021 (in magnum)
Tim Wildman’s English debut is very typically Pet Nat – offering a nose of pure fruit and a savoury funk. This was particularly good from magnum, with brighter, more intense aromatics, a creamier, almost lees-ier richness and persistent mousse. The nose offers vibrant fruit that ranges from peach to red berry; charming and cheeky, yet with a surprisingly long finish. The blend is myriad: Madeleine Angevine 75%, Reichensteiner 10% with 10% Triomphe d’Alsace, Rondo and Cabernet Noir, plus 5% other ‘heritage’ varieties (from Schonburger to Regent, Huxelrebe, Madelein Sylvaner and more), sourced from Kent, East Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Devon, Herefordshire and Powys.