Sancerre is not exactly a hotbed of experimentation. Knowing that it can generally be sold on name alone, its growers hew toward conservatism, and it requires a particularly driven vigneron to veer from the citrus-and-chalk orthodoxy the market has come to expect from the appellation. Enter Cyril de Benoist de Gentissart, the dynamo proprietor of Domaine du Nozay, in Sancerre’s far northern reaches. Cyril’s father Philippe planted the first Sauvignon Blanc here in 1971, and today the domaine encompasses fifteen contiguous hectares of vines on these steeply sloping, variously oriented hillsides near the town of Saint-Gemme en Sancerrois.
Cyril farms biodynamically—Demeter-certified as of 2017—which already puts him in a tiny minority of Sancerre producers. He is also one of only a handful of growers in the world experimenting with sonic stimulation in his vineyards: speaker towers installed among his vines emit tonal sequences at intervals throughout the day, promoting sap circulation and nourishing overall plant health. It may sound outré, but the results speak for themselves. In the cellar, too, Cyril’s work pushes boundaries for the appellation: he employs no outside yeasts for fermentation; he does not sulfur or filter to block malolactic fermentation, welcoming it if it happens in part or in whole; and the levels of added sulfur in his wines fall far below the already stringent limit for biodynamic certification.
While his “Domaine du Nozay” and “Château du Nozay” bottlings offer particularly dynamic and personal takes on the classic Sancerre profile, it is with the minuscule-production “Clos du Nozay” that Cyril locates a whole new register in the appellation’s vocal range. Amphorae—or, as the French tend to call them, “jars”—have been used in recent years on all manner of grape varieties in all manner of places, with widely varying results; a terra cotta vessel’s extremely low porosity and de-emphasis of treble in the aromatics sometimes fights the varietal character of its vinous contents. However, judging from the Clos du Nozay, which spends twelve months in varyingly sized small jars of Italian and French origin, Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre’s soils is beautifully suited to such treatment. The variety’s sometimes garishly exuberant aromatics are toned down, and the fruit eschews Sancerre’s usual citric shriek in favor of a rounder, more luscious stratum of flavor, reminiscent of ripe peaches and crunchy melons.
Clos du Nozay comprises the heart of the domaine’s oldest vines—47 years old as of the 2018 vintage—planted on a 45-degree south-facing incline and surrounded by stone walls and hedges. Grapes are harvested by hand, slowly crushed via pneumatic press, and allowed to ferment spontaneously in the jars in which they will age; sulfur is added only prior to bottling, which is done without fining or sterile filtration. Furthermore, Cyril allows full malolactic fermentation to occur, which further distances Clos du Nozay from the straitjacketed linearity of most Sancerre. The palate expresses energy not through rapier-like acidity but through an overall sense of vivacity, and the wine’s formidable minerality suffuses rather than spars with the fruit; this is a Sancerre that has learned to meditate. Cyril produced barely more than 1,000 bottles of the 2018 Clos du Nozay, at we have a mere 50 cases for the US market. For serving purpose, this will show its best at cellar rather than fridge temperature, and we expect it to develop and improve in bottle for at least half a decade.