The wine and beer worlds can be equally enthralled by trending styles (you remember the rosé explosion?). More recently, though, the object of much oeneophilic affection has been natural wines, or wines made with as little technological fussing as possible. “Press grape juice, ferment it, get it in the bottle with minimal interventio” goes the general philosophy.
Within the natural wine umbrella, pét-nat is the fizzy, fun party wine of the moment. (It stands for pétillant-naturel, FYI.) True Champagne is expensive, but pét-nat has emerged as a more economical, sparkling alternative, the cool-kid bottle to bring to a party. For such a trendy beverage, its explanation can get technical quickly. Put simply, pét-nat wine is fermented grape juice that’s moved quickly from tank to bottle with its natural yeast unfiltered, so primary fermentation continues in the bottle and makes it bubbly. For wine geeks: It doesn’t receive a dosage of extra sugar like Champagne.
Grapes are fruit; apples are fruit. Why hasn’t a cidermaker applied this technique to cider? Shacksbury has.
The Vergennes, Vermont cidermaker released its first Pet-Nat cider in 2015 and followed it with a second vintage in 2016.
“I tend to drink lower-alcohol farmhouse beers. We just went back to Suarez and they had a bunch of unfiltered pilsners and I was like ‘Thank you so much.’ People who fall into that should be falling into the natural wine category; it has a lot of the same characteristics,” says Shacksbury director of business development Luke Schmuecker. “When it comes to pét-nat, when I talk to people who are familiar with homebrewing or beer, I say that a simple way to put it is that instead of bottle-conditioning, it’s finishing primary fermentation in the bottle.”
But cidermaking isn’t brewing; it begins with fruit rather than grain. Because there’s so little manipulation of the fruit from juicing to bottling, the apples used to make Shacksbury’s Pet Nat cider make all the difference to its final flavor. And the apples Shacksbury uses are very wild. They’re not orchard-grown but are foraged from wild apple trees across Vermont, trees that aren’t tended or pruned or watered or fertilized. The apples are then pressed with their skins on, leaving the natural yeast on the fruit to ferment the juice.
“You’re getting, in my opinion, a great, true expression of the fruit from that vintage without doing anything to it: no water added, no yeast pitch, no boiling. No one’s doing anything to the trees. It’s Vermont in a bottle,” Schmuecker says.
The closest equivalent in beer might be a coolship lambic, or some other beer made with wild yeast from its surroundings. Both express their locations, or terroir to borrow again from the wine world.
“With Pet Nat, our goal is to have it be light and refreshing but have it still be complex,” Schmuecker says. “Because you’re not doing any filtration or anything like that, and because it has to naturally carbonate itself, it’s still alive. You want it to taste like it’s alive in the bottle.”
And because it’s still alive in the bottle, Pet Nat is changing every day. The 2015 vintage tastes different now than when it was first bottled, to say nothing of the variations between vintages as a result of each year’s foraged apples. Apple trees only bear fruit every other year, so while 2015 was a great year for loading up on wild apples in Vermont, 2016’s results were smaller and their flavors more concentrated.
There is, however, a common flavor thread year to year due to the wild yeast that ferments the ciders. It’s specific to the area of Vermont in which Shacksbury is located and where most of the apples are gathered. In fact, there’s a nearby winery called La Garagista whose winemaker, Deidre Heekin, produces pét-nat wines that Schmuecker says share a common yeast character with Shacksbury’s Pet Nat cider.
“If you get a Prairie beer, you get that same Prairie house yeast. It’s like that, but our house yeast exists naturally in the air.”