Tim Wildman MW is a pét-nat obsessive, and has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to this sparkling wine style. He crafts the immensely popular Piggy Pop and Astro Bunny bottles, from Italian grapes in South Australia. But why pét-nat? It is, after all, not a wine style that sits in the realm of fine wine. What is it about pét-nat that's so utterly captivating? The man himself explains ...
For most wine producers pét-nat is something they make in small quantities on the side of their 'proper' wine business; it’s risky, highly unpredictable and can go spectacularly wrong. I’ve taken the opposite approach and become a pét-nat specialist, having devoted the last ten years of my life to building Wildman Wine into Australia’s most successful pét-nat brand, and am about to launch a new English pét-nat called ‘Lost in a Field’. I admit it, I’m a pét-nat tragic. Here are six reasons why I’m hopelessly devoted to this heartbreak wine style and what I’ve learnt along the way.
1. Fun not Fine
I’ll start with a confession, I’m not a trained winemaker. Despite being a Master of Wine (MW), I’ve never been to actual winemaking school. When I bought a one-way ticket to Adelaide in 2013 I hadn’t planned on making wine, but then I lost a bet with a friend which resulted in me picking a tonne of grapes. But what kind of wine was I going to make? I didn’t have the skills to make ‘fine wine’ so I decided I was going to make fun wine, and what is more fun than pink pét-nat?
At the time there were just six producers making pét-nat in Australia, and only two of them really knew what they were doing, whereas I had an experience of French pét-nat through my previous job in the UK.
It was the perfect choice for an unskilled chancer, there was no defined style, and I had a bit more knowledge than anyone else. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man makes pét-nat.
I’ve always loved that part of the Venn diagram where quality grapes overlap with frivolous wine styles, I call this kind of wine ‘Thinky-Drinky’, wines you can quaff with impunity but also have detail and interest if you pause to look.
I made most of the mistakes possible with that first vintage of Astro Bunny, it was 15% alcohol, the pressure was too high, with too much sediment, so on opening half the bottle gushed out, which had to be fixed by hand disgorging all 600 bottles. But it sold, and I believe it was the fundamental quality of the grapes I’d bought that allowed me to get away with it. Good pét-nat can be the ultimate Thinky-Drinky wine.
3. Crossing the Streams
The Astro Bunny bottle has always intentionally had an image on the front label and text on the back. That front label is meant to convey 100% emotion, not information, an aspect where pét-nat has more in common with craft beer than conventional wine. The labels are bold, eye-catching, often with a street art aesthetic and punk energy, clearly signaling this is not ‘Boomer Wine’.
I want the customer to have an emotional response to the label, if it looks fun it will taste fun.
There are also stylistic affinities between pét-nat and craft beer, Millennial drinkers used to the yeasty flavours of sour and lambic beers can feel at home with pét-nat’s ‘bottle conditioned’ flavour profile. Pét-nat is the gateway beverage into wine for a generation of craft beer drinkers.
4. Park Life
I’ve always had a problem with the whole concept of food and wine matching. I’m more likely to match wine with people, with mood, with memories of shared experiences on holiday, or wines made by mates. There’s also wine and location matching, what’s the best wine to drink in the park out of paper cups, or sitting in a camper van watching the sun set? The answer is of course pét-nat.
I dare anyone to make a pét-nat and food matching recommendation with a straight face. Pét-nat is a wine style that sticks two fingers up to the received rules of the wine establishment.
5. Gut Instinct
When we first start learning about wines, we’re taught to look at it with our eyes, smell it with our nose, taste it with our mouth and think about it with our brain. All activities that are ‘above the neck’.
The best natural wines are those that bypass all that education and etiquette, where your stomach recognizes something alive and nutritious in the wine and you want to eat it as much as drink it. These are what I call 'below the neck’ wines, and I associate them with wines that are made with low or no sulphur, no additions or additives, often cloudy with yeast cells, and good pét-nat ticks all these boxes. Once your gut gets involved you will forever see the world as divided into a binary division of wines that your stomach wants to drink versus the rest, and there’s no going back.
I love drinking pét-nat, but I love drinking other people’s as much as my own. If there’s a pét-nat by the glass in a bar I’ll buy it, on trips and at wine fairs, I seek out the pét-nat producers.
Only by drinking widely, sharing stories, swapping tips and developing a highly critical sense of what you like, and don’t like, with a wine style, do you learn how those features can be achieved or avoided in the final wine. If you want to master a technique you have to immerse yourself in it, to live it.
William Blake famously saw the ‘world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower’, and so has pét-nat been for me. It has allowed me, in a modest way, to help develop and shape a whole new emerging category of wine, whilst making a meaningful contribution to the industry I’ve spent my whole life working in. I’ve also had a lot of fun along the way, met some great people and made some amazing friends, so maybe that’s not so tragic after all.