This is a story of old and new. Of traditions and innovation, and marketing opportunities. Of old wine making techniques, of the marketing success of sparkling pink Muscat and the trendiness of funky pet-nat wines. Of appellation rules and protecting wine traditions.
In early January 2016, Wink Lorch (who I mentioned in my last post had personally transported rosé from Oregon for me) telephoned me. As part of her research for her next book on the wines of the French Alps she was going to visit the vineyards of Bugey-Cerdon. Did I fancy going with her to taste their rosés and their méthode ancestrale rosés. It sounded a great idea and I duly booked my ticket to Geneva where Wink would collect me before a short week visiting vineyards. The plan started to fall apart as we struggled to find hotels and restaurants which would be open in January, and the trip collapsed when a freak, cold front plummeted temperatures to below -10C. Dear readers, even in my quest to seek out all and every interesting rosé, standing in freezing cellars for four days was not high on my list of vinous ambitions. The plan was shelved, and I continued my research in warmer conditions.
Méthode ancestrale wines are also known as pétillant naturel, French for ‘naturally sparkling’ They can be made with any varieties and range in colour from red, through pink to white and, due to the method of vinification can be cloudy or murky. Unlike Champagne and traditional-method sparkling wines, they do not undergo disgorgement when the spent yeast and sediment are removed. Amongst the most well-known white wines is Blanquette de Limoux from the Pyrenees.
Most méthode ancestrale wines are made under more controlled conditions, however, this method has also developed a trendy cousin, pet-nats (a shortened version of pétillant naturel). These are typically fermented using natural yeasts found on grapes (and not a specific strain added by winemakers) and no added sugars. Pet-nats are unfiltered, unprocessed and unpredictable, which can lead to the risk of explosion when opened. Pet-nats which are also organic or biodynamic have added appeal. With the success of the natural orange (amber) wines, these pet-nats are regarded as the sparkling wine equivalent. The unpredictability of the wine means that it remains something of an oddity. Tim Wildman MW has made a feature of this erratic quality by promoting the #notshit tasting exclamation. His 2017 vintage has the humorous name ‘Heavy Petting.’
Pet-nat sales are small – largely due to the small quantities made and the niche market. But a growing number of winemakers are giving it a shot. Unlike Champagnes, which often are made from a blend of different wines from several vintages, pet-nat wines are typically created using a single varietal from a single vintage and often bottled just a few months after harvest.
Back to Bugey-Cerdon. In 2009, the small, steeply sloping vineyards of Bugey-Cerdon gained its appellation. Since then they have worked hard to create a name for their sparkling pink wines, made using the méthode ancestrale with Gamay (sometimes with a touch of the pale skinned Poulsard). A hundred kilometres west of Cerdon lie the vineyards of Beaujolais, where Jean-Paul Brun at Domaine des Terres Dorées makes a non-appellation pet-nat Gamay rosé called FRV100 (say the name out loud in French to say effervescent (sparkling) which is darker and fruitier than those of Bugey-Cerdon.
In 2016 Clairette de Die, on the southern side of the Vercors mountains, was granted permission by the INAO to add a pink version of méthode ancestrale wine to their existing white wine appellation, citing older references to this style: «la joyeuse et pétillante clairette de Die» et «sa mousse rose». (Le Dauphiné, édition du Dimanche 6 janvier 1867). Pink Clairette de Die is made from a white Muscat tinted with the juice of a red mutation of their Muscat à Petits Grains grapes, some Clairette and a maximum of 10% Gamay.
Eric Angelot, president of the Bugey Syndicat of winemakers expressed concern that the producers of Clairette de Die were posing unfair competition to Cerdon. Being much larger, even if only 10% of Diois production were pink, it would be more than the entire sparkling rosé production of Bugey-Cerdon claimed worried producers in 2016. In 2017, Die sold 200 000 bottles of sparkling wine in all styles compared to the 15 000 of Bugey- Cerdon, and numbers suggest the amount of sparkling rosé produced is currently about the same.
In 2016 Wink covered the dispute and again in mid-January 2018 when they won their case. The court found that Die had no historic tradition for making their wine pink, citing that since 1957, the appellation prohibited any wine other than white Clairette de Die within the geographic area covered by the appellation, and the appellation for rosé was revoked. Of course, the court case and results happened after I had finished my rosé book, so this is an update on these wines.
Die producers have said they will continue to fight for the right to the appellation. For those who have increased their plantings of Muscat à Petits Grains rouge, they will surely hope to be able to continue produce their sweet pink wine, with or without an appellation, especially with the current popularity of sparkling (not pet-nat) pink Moscatos.
Most sparkling pink Muscats or Moscatos do not have the same impassioned link to history and region. Gallo’s Barefoot Bubbly Pink Moscato launched in the UK in 2013. In a Drinks Business interview, Stephanie Gallo said Gallo have had a 47% share of Moscato sales in America since launching their white Moscato in 2008, and traced the start of ‘Moscato madness’ to a trend spotted within the country’s armed forces. (The American army seems to have a consistent influence on rosé trends, with the introduction of Portuguese Mateus and Lancers rosé and Puglian Five Roses to the American market after World War 2.)
Low alcohol sparkling pink Moscato is also a growing trend in Australia.
Hopefully there is space in the market for two sweet pink méthode ancestrale sparkling wines. Bugey-Cerdon reflecting its more northerly location and the red fruit and fresh acid character of the Gamay variety and those of the Die region with their more floral Muscat character, maybe without the presence of Gamay. These two regions can offer regional character as well as the individuality of an ancient method of vinification.
However, the protection of history and the traditions of terroir has raised interesting questions, ones which impact on changing appellations, especially in France, and the value of these appellation rules. As Fabien Lombard, Président of the Syndicat de la Clairette de Die said ‘Decisions like this go against the very idea of allowing an appellation to evolve’.