This year's harvest in New York City’s local wine region, the Hamptons, started 10 days later than usual for
Channing Daughters' pét-nats, aka pétillant-naturels, the current bubbly wine craze. These lightly fizzy, naturally sparkling wines are made by the centuries-old méthode ancestrale, bottled before fermentation has finished.
The winery began picking white grapes for its Sylvanus pét-nat on Sept. 21. Why harvest dates vary from year to year is partly mysterious, governed by the weather over the entire growing season.
Depending on the vintage, the ever-experimental winemaker Christopher Tracy makes six or seven pét-nats in white, red, and rosé versions each year.
“We love to drink bubbles,” he said. “Fizz is like butter or bacon: It makes everything better. And because of our cool climate, the fruit is tailor-made for great sparkling wine.” The first commercial release was the 2014 vintage.
Crush, winespeak for harvest, is a chaotic daily whirl, a winery’s make-or-break season. Here’s how Channing Daughters made its Sylvanus pét-nat this year.
Like our recommendations about top tier wine? We're exploring creating a wine club. If you'd be interested in joining, please shoot us an e-mail at email@example.com.
Cooled by Atlantic breezes in Bridgehampton, N.Y., this charming winery grows more than two dozen varieties of grapes and makes many different wines in addition to pét-nats. Small and quirky, Channing Daughters was founded by the late venture capitalist and artist Walter Channing in 1982. Seen here, the tasting room.
The 10-acre Sylvanus Vineyard, planted in 1999 off a bucolic dirt road, is one of six vineyards Channing Daughters owns. One of its white pét-nats comes from a two-acre block where three different grape varieties are interplanted.
The three grapes—muscat ottonel, pinot grigio, and pinot bianco—are harvested together as a field blend. Pinot grigio is a white wine, but the grape skins look red. The prominent green ones in the photo are muscat. “When to pick is key,” said winemaker Christopher Tracy, “if you miss the right moment, you’re done.”
After checking the grapes for a couple of weeks, he based his day-to-pick decision on the analytics (tests of the acid, pH, and sugar content in the grapes), taste, and touch, plus the weather forecast. (Low pH wines taste tart and crisp, something you want for a pét-nat.)
The 25 pickers, a mix of winery crew, their families, and people in the community, show up at 8 a.m. For eight or nine hours they move from vine to vine, cutting off each grape bunch with a short, wickedly sharp, hooked blade, then drop the bunch into a colorful plastic bin that holds 28 pounds. They sort out damaged grapes as they pick. Some are destined for the pét-nat, some for a still wine, and some for a skin-fermented wine.
It’s tough work, and you have to watch for buzzing bees that are attracted to the sticky sweet grape juice that inevitably ends up on your hands.
Field workers haul grape bins onto a pickup truck, which takes them to the bustling winery crushpad. For Tracy, it’s a dance from one load of grapes to the next as he choreographs one decision after another: which grapes go into the de-stemmer, which directly into the press, where the juice from one pressing goes, and more. A boombox blares music—Chicago blues, classic rock, mariachi bands.
Basket by basket, workers dump whole clusters of pét-nat grapes directly into the Maslin-Bucher press, which gently squeezes the juice out of three to four tons at a time, in a two-hour cycle. This delicate pressing preserves bright acidity and fresh aromas, and the grape stems add a subtle complexity to the flavors of the wine. Only the juice will be fermented.
There’s no de-stemming or punchdowns for the pet nat grapes, as there is for making skin-fermented whites or reds, which need contact with the skins to pick up color and tannin.
The grape skins and stems left after pressing, known as pomace, go off to a compost pile to eventually be used as fertilizer for the vines. Intact clusters often remain, which shows just how gentle the pressing was.
Other Sylvanus grapes, for skin-fermented whites, are dumped into a de-stemming machine, after which the de-stemmed grapes go into one-ton bins to start fermenting.
Turning Grape Juice into Wine, Part 1
The foamy pét-nat juice falls into the press pan, then goes into a large stainless tank so the gross lees (dead yeast cells and other solids) can settle to the bottom.
Bring on the Wild Yeasts
Within hours, the juice is racked into this 550-gallon stainless steel tank to ferment. Tracy relies on the wild yeasts on the grape skins to gobble up the sugar in the grapes and transform it into alcohol.
Tracy grabs some skin fermenting grapes to add to the pét-nat juice to help kickstart fermentation.
Turning Grape Juice Into Wine, Part 2
Tracy tastes the cloudy fermenting juice two times or more every day, watching it, he says, “like a hawk.” Though fermentation for most wines lasts anywhere from a week to a month, if not more, for pét-nat the time frame is short. Because you bottle the wine while it’s still fermenting, he has to catch the moment when some sugar remains in the juice.
The Finish Line
That moment arrives. Tracy coarsely filters the foaming wine, it is bottled, and a crown cap (like one on a beer bottle), goes on top. The wine inside is still fermenting, giving off carbon dioxide that is trapped by the cap. It's what creates the bubbles.
Source: Channing Daughters Vineyard
Ready to Drink
The slightly rustic wine will be cloudy, and the sediment will fall to the bottom of the bottle. In a few weeks, it will taste softly fizzy and tangy, with aromas and salty-fruity flavors of minerals, grapefruit, and spice. Tracy and the farm manager will sample it yet again.
In early December, the 2016 Sylvanus pét-nat will go on sale, just in time for the holidays. The deliciously fun fizz is best drunk sooner rather than later, after being chilled upright in an ice bucket for half an hour.