A New Face in Sancerre
Our market here in the United States seems to possess an unquenchable thirst for Sancerre. A clean, fresh wine with plenty of character; a lovely and easy-to-pronounce name; a grape variety everybody knows; what’s not to like? Unfortunately, much like Provençal rosé, the lion’s share of Sancerre is produced from chemically farmed vineyards stretched to their maximum yield capacity, with fermentations prodded along by bulletproof commercial yeast strains, and bottling occurring at the earliest possible moment to ensure “market readiness” for the spring/summer selling season. Fortunately, we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant found a talented and quality-oriented ally in the appellation early on in Domaine Lucien Crochet, and since our startlingly modest initial purchase of 300 bottles in 1981, we grew together steadily to the point where we have been purchasing the absolute maximum quantities possible for some years now—and still it has proven barely enough to satisfy an ever-expanding market. Thus, for the first time in our long history, we were poised to entertain the notion of an additional partner in this beloved appellation…
Enter: Domaine du Nozay. Sancerre’s sprawl encompasses nearly 3,000 hectares of vines, but the traditional heart of the appellation is a central core flanked by the towns of Sancerre, Bue (Crochet’s home turf), and Chavignol. In contrast, the fifteen-hectare Domaine du Nozay lies at the northernmost extreme of the appellation—a contiguous and steep bowl of vineyards just outside the town of Sainte-Gemme-en-Sancerrois. Back in 1971, the ambitious Philippe de Benoist purchased the stunning 17th-century Chateau du Nozay and began planting vines around the property, and today his son Cyril runs the operation with boundless enthusiasm and effusive intelligence. In fact, Cyril is a nephew of the legendary Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée Conti (his mother Marie-Helène is Aubert’s sister), so perhaps that visionary spirit runs in his bloodstream. In an appellation in which it is so easy—and, perhaps, tempting—to produce wine with a minimum of effort and rely on its famous name to sell it, Cyril’s restless pursuit of his terroir’s deepest possible expression is admirable. The entire property is farmed organically, and Cyril is converting gradually to biodynamics (with certification in place for 2018); employs only spontaneous fermentations; and the wines are not rushed into bottle, instead spending much of those warm spring and summer “selling months” being nourished by their fine lees. It seems that most Sancerre producers are rushing their 2017s into bottle to reach the market as soon as possible, but we patiently await the 2016s from Domaine du Nozay.
In terms of terroir, the micro-climate of Sainte-Gemme is a far cry from Bué and Chavignol. Whereas the latter two villages tend to produce Sancerre of ample fruit, clear varietal typicity, and intense concentration, Sainte-Gemme’s wines are a bit more feistily mineral-driven, a bit more marked by earth—it is perhaps no accident that Sainte-Gemme is the closest village to Chablis in terms of physical proximity. Domaine du Nozay’s wines show clear Sauvignon Blanc character, certainly, but a compelling underlay of chalk dust and fresh soil provide a fascinating contrast to the more regally poised and classically “Sancerre” offerings of Crochet. The patient student of terroir comes to realize over time that appellation boundaries are not strict limits, and that expressions at the fringes tend to bleed into one another. As lifelong devotees of this field of study, we are thrilled to welcome such a source into our family of growers—a new timbre of voice in France’s endlessly enchanting choir.
2016 Domaine du Nozay Sancerre: Fermented naturally and raised entirely in small stainless steel tanks—rounder and more “egg-shaped” than typical cylindrical vessels in order to promote constant motion of the fine lees—our first vintage of Domaine du Nozay’s flagship cuvee shows impressive complexity. To understand his vineyards as intimately as possible, Cyril vinifies and ages each individual parcel separately (no matter how small) and blends only before the time of bottling—a painstaking regimen. With a broad, flinty mineral core of palate-staining intensity, this 2016 positively bristles with energy, a testament to its supremely healthy biodynamically wrought grapes of origin. The fruit here stops well short of overt Sauvignon Blanc gooseberry, offering notes of lime zest, muskmelon, and salty peach on a bright but not squeaky-sterile frame. It is refreshing to encounter a Sancerre that shows excellent typicity yet speaks more of the rocks beneath the soil than the fruit suspended above it.
2016 Domaine du Nozay Sancerre “Chateau du Nozay”: Cyril produces a separate cuvee from the estate’s oldest and best-exposed vines closest to the chateau itself. As of 2016, the vines for the “Chateau du Nozay” are 45 years old, and while the wine possesses the same almost Chablis-like carriage as the “Domaine” bottling above, the intensity and depth are noticeably ratcheted up here. While it’s still lean and punchy, the vines’ diet of more sun and deeper subsoils reveals itself in a glimmer of glycerol succulence on the mid-palate and a rounder, longer finish. A certain density that still avoids any sense of heaviness suggests the possibility of interesting cellar development, and for those inclined to allow the Sauvignon’s youthful exuberance to subside and let the limestone shine through, this will prove a very rewarding purchase. The production here is barely five percent of that of the “Domaine” Sancerre, so available quantities are scant.