Oranges are not the only fruit, Champagne is not the only sparkling wine  

Burbujas de Altura

For my mum’s 85th birthday this month, among the green rolling hills of the Kentish countryside, I opened a bottle of “Pet Nat”, a lightly fermented sparkling wine which we’d brought across from Argentina. 

For those of you who have never heard of Pet Nat, it is short for “Pétillant Naturel” which is French for “naturally bubbling”, and that pretty much sums it up.

Our bottle was lower in alcohol than most champagnes (the wine we drank was 10 per cent alcohol by volume, while most champagnes are around 12 AVB).

There’s no second fermentation as with the champagne process, just a natural fermentation in the bottle which my family of Pet Nat virgins found lightly sparkling, with a fresh, fruity flavour.

It’s a simpler, quicker process than champagne, taking a year and a half compared to between two and a half and three years with champagne.

Sommelier Ben McVeigh, director and buyer at the excellent Peckham Cellars wine bar in south London explains that Pet Nat or ‘méthode ancestral’ wine originated in Limoux in the French south west in the 16th century, way before the emergence of champagne in the north east of the country.

“In my view, champagne owes its existence to Pet Nat, as it was the original way of producing sparkling wines.

“Whereas Champagne relies on ageing and yeast autolysis to give those typical yeasty, brioche aromas, Pet Nats are generally created to be drunk young – you get a signature freshness, but also a direct reflection of the harvested grapes in the aroma.”

There’s a natural yeasty sediment at the bottom of Pet Nat, so you need to leave the bottle upright in the fridge for a few days before opening.    

While champagne is mostly made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier grape varieties, the Pet Nat we drank is made with the Torrontes grape which grows so successfully in Argentina.  

I first tried it at Burbujas de Altura, the excellent small winery run by the Hoy family in Cafayate, which is always a hit with guests on our tailor-made wine tours of the Valles Calchaquies.

As far as I know, this is the only winery in the world producing Torrontes by the traditional méthode champenoise: perhaps because, as Marianella Hoy explains, the process is so much more complicated than using other varieties.

“People told us it couldn’t be done, but we thought let’s give it a go. We tried it after six months of fermentation, and it was no good: OK, at least we tried, we thought, we experimented and we’ve discovered why everyone told us it couldn’t be done.”

But her daughter Tania, an enologist trained in Mendoza who has worked for Norton and Fecovita as well as stints with wineries in California, persisted, trying the maceration for longer.

Finally, after two years, it appeared to be have turned into something was drinkable. Very drinkable, in fact… as my wife Alicia can vouch: Burbujas de Altura’s sparkling Torrontes, is the only alcoholic drink that has ever received her full approval (generally, she doesn’t drink anything alcoholic).

Clearly, most wine producers aren’t going to spend four times as long on something that they’re selling for the same price as a bottle made with different grapes, but Burbujas de Altura is a family affair, and their wine elaboration is a labour of love.

Andres worked for 31 years with Esteco, one of the largest wineries in Cafayate, and a big hitter on the international market (it’s the old Michel Torino winery, and you may still see that name on their label in your local wine merchant).

He’s got a world of experience and is constantly innovating, recently turning Burbujas into the first solar-powered wine producer in the Calchaquies valley.  

In 1988 the family bought land at Finca La Primavera on the edge of Cafayate, Salta’s premier wine producing town, and they now have 19 hectares under vine.

As well as being innovators of sparkling Torrontes, the Hoy family also produces standard Torrontes, as well as a sweeter late harvest, Malbec (of course), Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, and an excellent new Franc/Malbec blend called Vinland which passes 15 months through French oak.

The Pet Nat is one of Andre’s newest ventures: they produced just 450 bottles in this, their first year, 150 bottles each of Torrontes, Chardonnay and rose.

The Hoy family are always exploring, innovating and experimenting… luckily for us! A visit is always highly recommended if you’re on a wine tour in Argentina.   

 

For photos of a recent visit to Burbujas de Altura with our friends from Poland, Ale & Kasia, see our Instagram page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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