I pried the crown cap off the bottle and heard a whisper of invitation. The wine fizzed gently as I poured it into the glass. Its color was golden but not bright, even a bit hazy. It smelled of fermentation: funky and fruity at the same time. The label told me it was albarino, but I might have been stumped if asked to guess the grape. The flavor was beguiling, heavier and more complex than cider but lighter and less precise than champagne.
Even more intriguing, this wine was local: a 2015 "pét-nat" from Old Westminster Winery in central Maryland.
"We love experimenting," says Lisa Hinton, Old Westminster's winemaker. It's a family operation: Her brother, Drew Baker, manages the vineyard, while their sister, Ashli Johnson, handles sales and marketing.
"There are no other Maryland producers making this style of wine, and we are among the first in the Mid-Atlantic," Hinton wrote in an email. Last year they made about 400 bottles of pét-nat from albariño and another 1,000 bottles from grüner veltliner, choosing those grapes because they can be harvested early and the process can be finished before the main rush of harvest. Their experimentation didn't stop there: They will release a syrah pét-nat in July. We can expect other wineries to follow suit.
The Mid-Atlantic is still defining itself as a wine region. When we think of Virginia and Maryland, we savor the cabernet franc, salivate over petit verdot and nod in appreciation over the Bordeaux blends. White wines offer lush viognier, crisp and racy albariño and tropical petit manseng. But when we visit local wineries, we should not pass up these experimental wines. They may be the winemaker's diversion, but they may also be unique and delicious.
Pét-nat, short for "pétillant naturel," is a style of sparkling wine made via a process that predates the more familiar champagne method. Rather than inducing a second (fizzy) fermentation in bottle and aging the wine on its lees for an extended period, as is done in Champagne, in the méthode ancestrale the wine is bottled before all the sugar has fermented into alcohol. The final stage of fermentation traps gas in the bottle, creating the bubbles. A pét-nat doesn't need aging and can be released shortly after the harvest.
Because it is made with minimal intervention and no additives, pét-nat has become a fashion in natural-wine circles, meaning iconoclastic winemakers in France and sommeliers looking to bust out of the restrictive conventions of the wine world. These wines can be unpredictable, varying from bottle to bottle. For some consumers (and wine writers), that can be a problem, but others find such unpredictability attractive. Each bottle is an adventure, if you're willing to go wherever the wine takes you rather than force it to fit your itinerary.
And for winemakers, it can be fun.
Early Mountain Vineyards, in Virginia's Madison County, also made a pét-nat of syrah from the 2015 vintage. Although fewer than 100 bottles were produced, Frank Morgan, author of the Drink What YOU Like wine blog, heralded it as "a cool new chapter to the Virginia wine story."
The wine was the creation of Early Mountain vineyard manager Maya Hood White, who said she thought "it would be nice to make a little something for the folks who help out during harvest." Even with such a small production, there was enough left to sell at the winery, making it the first Virginia pét-nat available to consumers.
At King Family Vineyards in Crozet, northwest of Charlottesville, Matthieu Finot crafts some of Virginia's finest red blends as well as a plush, fruity viognier. But he's a tinkerer. So with the 2014 vintage, he released a new "small batch series" viognier, fermented on its skins like a red wine and aged 14 months in barrel. Inspired by the "orange" wines of Georgia but made with more control over the process and fermentation, the wine is compelling. It offers tannin and structure like a red to temper the tropical-fruit characteristic of a white.
"We marketed it to our wine club members and it was gone in no time," Finot told me via email. He plans to make more this year. Soon he will release a merlot and chardonnay made without any additions of sulfur, a natural preservative.
The next time you're at a local winery, ask about its winemaker's experiments. You might discover a gem.