Domaine du Nozay

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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.

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.

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 cuvee 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, musk melon, and salty peach on a bright but not squeaky-sterile frame. It’s refreshing to encounter a Sancerre that shows excellent typicity yet speaks more of the rocks beneath the soil than the fruit suspended above it.
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.
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.
Sancerre “La Marâtre”: s the name of the parcel just above Nozay’s cellar, which burrows into the side of a gentle south-facing hillside. Cyril’s 15-year-old vines in this relatively rich Kimmeridgian marl—known locally as “Terres Blanches” for its tendency to turn white during dry periods—produce a wine simultaneously brighter and more earth-driven than the Domaine du Nozay above, with an expansive, clinging finish of notable length. Fruit here is more clearly delineated, with a subtle chlorophyll-like note adding to the wine’s multidimensional character. As with the Domaine du Nozay, this spends just under a year in horizontally oriented barrel-shaped stainless-steel tanks on its fine lees, and is bottled with less than 30 milligrams per liter of total sulfur.
2019 Sancerre “La Plante Froide”: The soils of “La Plante Froide” are poorer and stonier than those of “La Marâtre,” and its 35-year-old vines—among the domaine’s oldest—yield a wine of crystalline minerality, lifted fruit, and harmonious elegance. It constitutes a notable step up in complexity from the previous cuvées, offering a longer and more blatantly saline finish, yet it still displays a satisfying and unforced generosity on the palate. Cyril employs old 500-liter oak barrels for around half of this wine during its 12-month elevage, using the aforementioned barrel-shaped steel tanks for the rest, and their presence is felt not in any oak flavors but in a certain lengthening of texture and refinement of minerality.

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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. Read More

2018 Clos du Nozay: Sancerre Unorthodoxy

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…Read More

Sancerre Sans Straitjacket: Domaine du Nozay

Few French appellations have the brand power of Sancerre. Zippy, citrusy Sancerre coats the throats of millions of drinkers per year, many of whom don’t know that it’s a place, not a grape variety. And, as with other appellations that become household names—Chablis, Champagne, and Bordeaux, for starters—its inherent marketability disincentivizes growers to go the extra mile. Read More

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