“exactitude within a non-exact style.”
James Christopher Tracy
David has been visiting our local doctor's surgery recently to have a dressing changed by the nurse there - well nurses actually - there are three different ones. Being a chatty person he talks to them, and discovered that one of them - Claire Lance - with her husband has a vineyard in the Yarra Valley. So, of course they chatted some more and the upshot was that he bought their 'mystery box' online. It arrived yesterday, delivered by the winemaker, James Lance, himself, and included, as they promised online:
"A selection of bin ends, cleanskins, cellared bits and bobs, all made by us. Recently tasted and all drinking well, at a very nice price! "
The nice price being $10.00 a bottle.
Amongst the offerings were two cleanskin bottles with 'YV pet nat 2016' scrawled on them in handwriting. What on earth was this he asked? I could see that it was bubbly - as you can see it has one of those tops you find on beer - so I guessed at pétillant for the 'pet' bit. At first we actually thought the 'nat' was 'wht', so I also guessed at 'white' - well it looked white. I actually can't remember now why we eventually arrived at the 'natural' bit, although David did decide it was 'nat' rather than 'wht'. I suppose it's only a small step from 'nat' to 'natural'. National is not very likely is it?
The picture of Punch is from the vineyard's own logo. David made the label to put on the unlabelled bottle. And yes David's label should have said Pét-nat, rather than pétillant naturel because that is what people call it, rather than the full name.
So then began the investigation of pétillant naturel. And here is what I have found.
Number one discovery and not a surprising one is that we, particularly I, are behind the times.
For Pét-nat is, of course, the latest thing in bubbly wine, though, in many ways unlikely to be a really big commercial thing. More likely it will be niche and trendy. And it has been increasingly trendy since the 90s. Quite a long time.
"This informal, unpretentious sparkling wine, which can be made from an untold number of grapes in styles ranging from hazy, unfiltered and full of sediment to clean-as-a-whistle, has caught on all over the winemaking world." Eric Asimov - New York Times
Number two - Pétillant naturel wines are not only natural - they are also very old.
"This genre of sparkling wine, now known as pétillant natural, or pét-nat, is made by a method so old that the French term for it is “methode ancestrale.” Eric Asimov - New York Times
Well that's what we do now isn't it, in so many different fields. We go back to the ancients to make something new. I gather it was winemakers in the Loire valley that were the first to exploit this old technology, although probably it's not really a technology, because basically it's just bunging the grape juice in the bottle and leaving it to ferment in the bottle. They think, in fact that this is probably how the first bubbly wines were made - by accident. The juice was put in the bottle still fermenting and eventually they got the bubbles. Although mostly the bottles probably exploded from the pressure. And it's still tricky even though it doesn't involve all those complicated steps you have with the other bubbly making techniques. Nor does it involve expensive machinery.
“Easy because you are basically bottling fermenting grape juice, but very challenging because it’s all about temperature and timing, and how that affects settling, turbidity, residual sugar and the absorption of carbon dioxide.” Tim Widman
Number three - The other downside is that the wines tend to be cloudy because you don't have that removal of the yeast that you get with the other methods. The various wine experts that I read seemed to think that this was one of the reasons why it would never be big commercially. We are, after all, used to beautifully clear bottles of wine. One method of getting over this if your wine is cloudy is to:
"Chill the bottle upright in an ice bucket for 30 minutes if you’d like to control the sediment in a hazy wine. The cold keeps sediment at the bottom of the bottle, allowing you to pour four relatively clear glasses." Wine Enthusiast
Well you should get six glasses shouldn't you? But obviously not all bottles are cloudy - there must be a way of removing the sediment. The bottles we have look perfectly clear to me, although, of course, the dark colour of the bottle hides the real colour. We shall see.
Number four - The upside of the Pét-nat style is that it can be made from any grape you care to mention. Which makes Pét-nat a method not a variety. The various wine experts I consulted, though, seemed to think that you needed acid rather than sweet, and riesling seemed to be a favourite. Lots of grapes were mentioned in my reading - many of them being varieties of which I had not heard. And indeed our own bottle has one of these. Having now perused the Punch vineyard website I think that what we have in our cleanskin is a mix of chardonnay and savagnin. No that's not a spelling error - it's a totally different grape to sauvignon blanc, and is from the Jura. It's closest relative seems to be the traminer.
Since it can be made from any kind of grape - from any colour of grape even - you can't really ascribe a particular taste to it, which is perhaps why people like it. It's a surprise package in itself, so very appropriate to find it in a mystery box.
"[pét-nat] is already bottled and still not finished, so it has an element of unpredictability, which to me is part of the fun and mystery." Jenny Lefcourt - wine importer.
"the biggest challenge is “keeping those bottles tame and consistent and beautifully expressive, and most importantly, delicious and reflective of where they come from.” James Christopher Tracy - winemaker
I think our particular cleanskin comes from a different vineyard to the Lance's own vineyard - the Rising vineyard, and is sold under the Friends of Punch label. Friends of Punch derives from our dreadful bush fires back in 2009, when the Lance family's vineyard was burnt out. Friends from neighbouring vineyards helped out with donations of fruit, and so was born the Friends of Punch label, whereby the Lances make wine from small parcels of fruit from neighbouring vineyards.
"To honour and celebrate this help, we began a new label - Friends of Punch - incorporating a love heart as a symbol of our gratitude. As Lance's Vineyard has recovered from the fire, we have maintained Friends of Punch as the home for small parcels of beautiful fruit, grown on our friends' vineyards, made by us at our winery."
I think our wine is one they call Rurale - it's called rurale because apparently another name for the method is méthode rurale. It usually sells for $32.00 a bottle. The current vintage is described as:
"Bright lemon with gold rim, nose is very open at first look. Floral notes, backed by aromas of white and yellow nectarines, lemon zest and yeasty notes. Palate is vibrant, with fine creamy bubbles, backed by well balanced freshness and acidity. Lovely drink with classy texture." Daniel Airoldi
The New York Times did a tasting of twenty different varieties from around the world (not Australia) and found them all to be delicious. If you want to read about Australian ones - James Halliday has a page on them on his website, Dan Murphy's too.
"Some were simply straightforward easy drinking, but others were nuanced and complex, a description rarely associated with pétillant naturel. Some seemed raw, as if the producer had captured in the bottle the transformation of juice into wine. Others had a yeasty, bready weight that is seen more often in Champagne." Eric Asimov - New York Times
And did I say, that you should drink pét-nat wines young and also they tend to have a low alcohol content? So perfect for that summer barbecue - if we ever get back to them.
So here's a little bit about Punch. The vineyard was planted by James' father David Lance who founded Diamond Valley wines - a well respected Yarra Valley label.
When David and his wife Catherine retired in 2005, James and his wife Claire took over. They now have a tasting room in central St. Andrews - near to the vineyard - and sell their wines to a very large range of restaurants in Victoria and NSW - including our local Mercer's. I have to say their wines are a little pricey generally - but then we are stingy. Others may disagree. The mystery pack is probably a good place to start. Ours included cleanskins of a 2008 chardonnay and 2011 pinot noir, a Friends of Punch 2015 rosé and a Friends of Punch Bannockburn 2009 shiraz. Some old wines in there. Should be interesting. But I think we might start with the Pét-nat, having now found out what it is.
"The gluggable, spritzy deliciousness of these wines mean they beg to be shared with friends." Daniel Honan - Halliday
Now what shall I cook to go with it? Fish perhaps. But alas no friends. Well maybe the family.
POSTSCRIPT: We drank this with our dinner on Friday. It was pretty nice. The whole bottle was clear, and so they must have done something to remove the sediment. (Indeed they do - they disgorge the sediment). It was slightly sharp, but very fresh tasting. Would recommend,