It’s unclear when effervescence in wine morphed from annoyance to asset. Contrary to Champagne’s beloved origin story, the Dom’s excited “Come quickly, I am tasting stars!” was probably closer to “Crap, bubbles again” when, with warm weather in the spring, fermentation spontaneously re-combusted in the still wine he was trying to make. What is known is that in the 1530s, more than 100 years before Pérignon converted to the bubbles-as-asset camp and helped refine Champagne’s traditional two-fermentation method, an older technique—méthode ancestrale—was employed (by monks, wouldn’t you know) to keep bubbles in the bottle instead of out.
Broadly speaking, the wine is purposely bottled before the yeast has consumed all the sugar in the primary fermentation, the bottle is sealed with a crown cap and the CO2 created as the fermentation continues is trapped. What’s old is new again, as they say. At a time when interest is up for all things natural, the Pétillant Naturel wines created by this decidedly noninterventionist method are all the rage, with producers from France to Texas creating delightful bottles.
There are potential pitfalls in the process. While winemakers can pause the fermentation at a desired point (cold winter weather did this in the old days) and even filter the partially fermented wine before bottling, once the cap is on and the fermentation continues, the interaction of the remaining yeast and sugar is somewhat out of their hands. And without being disgorged at the end of the process (most aren’t), some cloudy lees remain. After some 40 years in the business of wine, Anne Moller-Racke (who formerly developed The Donum Estate, before that was VP of vineyard operations for Buena Vista and now owns Blue Farm Wines), sees this as a good thing. “Typical winemaking is so much about control,” she says, “from temperature to the fermentation and aging process. With this wine, every bottle is different. It is its own little universe. This wine is more about letting go.”