The everyman's Champagne

Tasting Notes: Donkey and Goat 2012 Lily’s Cuvée Chardonnay

Culture By Photo by Eric Yang

In that casual game of preference, Would You Rather, we’re often faced with important decisions, like raising a child at 15 or never having kids, losing a pinky toe or never eating steak again, or never being able to wear shorts versus always having to wear a denim blazer. During one of these games, when asked about giving up beer for eternity, we came to a realization: while undesirable, the parting of ways wouldn’t be the end of the world — and we could do it without becoming a hard-hitting liquor drinker. How could we do such a thing? With a lifetime supply of sparkling wine, and specifically, a style of sparkling wine called pétillant naturel. One glass of the 2012 Lily’s Cuvée Chardonnay ($28) from California’s Donkey & Goat winery and you’ll know what we’re talking about.

MORE WINE WITHOUT SNOBBERY: Union Wine Co. | Want This, Get This: Merlots | Victor Schoenfeld, Israeli Winemaker

Lily’s Cuvée is made by Jared and Tracey Brandt, partners in life and in winemaking, both of whom abandoned their previous jobs (in software product management and advertising) to learn winemaking in France before founding Donkey & Goat. The Brandts make natural wines — red and white Rhône varietals, plus a Pinot noir and what they call an atypical Chardonnay — which means they don’t ferment in plastic, they don’t enhance color and extraction, they don’t add tannins or commercial yeast, and all of the labor is done by man rather than machine. Though we don’t often think of wine as a processed food, the reality is that most of it is; like other perishable goods, wine that isn’t modified or enhanced is less predictable and more likely to vary from year to year. In our mind, that’s a good thing.

Pétillant naturel wine is a good example of why. If you’ve perused the GP100, you know that pétillant naturel, or pét-nat for short, is a sparkling wine that’s bottled during the primary fermentation, capturing the carbon dioxide that makes it twinkle. This differs from Champagne, which gets a dose of sugar or juice to induce a secondary fermentation. The resulting pét-nat wines are usually a sweeter than Champagne and a bit less bubbly, but from there pét-nats take on all kinds of characteristics based on the preferences of the winemaker and because the wine can change significantly inside the bottle. It’s an historic style of wine that’s only recently catching on in the U.S. among producers of natural wines and niche importers.

We’re glad it did, because it’s good drinking. We’ve heard Lily’s Cuvée described alternately as adult soda and spring in a bottle. We held on to our bottle late into fall and found that it felt right at home there, too: it’s bright and fresh with lots of apples and honey, apricots and citrus. Honestly, it’s zesty. Lily’s — and pét-nat in general — is the perfect wine for drinking while you lounge in a swing chair with a date, or to slam back with some Chinese take-out. And like Champagne, nothing raises your stock quite like showing up to a party with this bubbly.

Unlike Champagne, it’s informal, with a crown cap instead of a cork and a price that doesn’t make it precious. “I think there’s there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance that goes into opening a bottle of Champagne”, Jared Brandt says. “This is supposed to be the opposite of that; it’s supposed to be fun and enjoyable. I think a lot of wine gets too involved in how fancy it can be. I want someone to open it on a day they had a great day or whatever.” And so you can see our reasoning in giving up beer during a game of Would You Rather.

But that was purely theoretical, for the record.