“There is not only one Sancerre, but thousands.” — Thibauld Denizot
If your frame of reference for Sancerre is shrill simplicity, the wines of Thibauld and Jennifer Denizot will add measurable depth and dimension to your perspective. These young vignerons are the 8th generation of their family to work a mosaic of exceptional terroirs. They are intent on showcasing their mythical lieux-dits through attentive farming and deliberate cellar work —especially through intricately composed cuvees. Blending is the hidden art of Sancerre, one at which Thibauld excels. The taut, energetic profile of the Denizot wines reaches its apogee in the Côte de l’épée, a precipitous limestone slope that yields sauvignon blanc at its most chiseled and crystalline, and Les Bouffants, a sun-drenched site on griottes and limestone that gives wines of pronounced structure and depth. The Denizots also make an elegant Sancerre Rouge that pays tribute to a less-known aspect of the region’s past. “There is not only one Sancerre, but thousands,” says Thibauld, inviting us to follow a natural curiosity to better understand the region’s surprising facets.
The oldest notarial writings and deeds found in the domaine’s archives date to the 18th century, passed down from generation to generation, always kept within the family. “Our ancestors knew Sancerre planted mainly to pinot noir,” explains Thibauld. “But then came phylloxera and they participated in the revival of the vineyards by planting mainly sauvignon blanc, keeping a few plots of pinot noir. It is this story we inherited, on magnificent terroirs.” The estate started quite small. Successively, Victor, Joseph, Jean, then Christian and Chantal Denizot acquired and exchanged plots that today total 18.5 hectares. Thibauld joined his parents at the domaine in 2005, after completing his studies. His first challenge was to work in the vineyards themselves, carrying out what he refers to as “precise gestures.” He then began to assist his father, Christian, in the cellar, gradually acquiring a feel for achieving complexity and finesse, particularly through blending. In 2014, he took over from Christian completely. Since that time, Thibauld and Jennifer have continually refined their understanding of terroir and expression, making them standouts of their generation in the region.
Sancerre is nestled in the hilly Upper Loire, covering 14 municipalities, and locals know the wines by the character of their individual communes. The Denizots have holdings in the village of Sancerre itself as well as neighboring Amigny, where the family has its roots, Chavignol, and Verdigny. Writings attest to wine cultivation here dating to 582. Thibauld asserts that the notion of climat, so famously applied in Burgundy, was already in use in Sancerre in 1482. Father Poupart, in his history of the region, wrote in 1777: “There is perhaps no more cut and differentiated terroir than that of the Sancerrois mountains. The ravines, which are multiplied there, offer different veins of earth everywhere.” Phylloxera compelled growers to leave behind mixed varieties, especially pinot noir, and shift to sauvignon blanc. This was in recognition of its perfect suitability for the myriad configurations of well-drained, limestone-based soils on variously exposed and elevated slopes (some 200 to 400 meters, or 650 to 1300 feet above sea level). Sancerre whites were granted one of the earliest AOCs, in 1936.
Thibauld describes the geology of Sancerre “as an island of tormented relief, bordered by the Loire to the east and dominated by the Piton de Sancerre. Hard to imagine that the sea once covered all of it, leaving behind many invertebrates, especially ammonites. Layers of very distant times overlap, or even rub shoulders at the same level. In places, entire geological stages disappear. Other layers overlap, causing new heights to emerge, forming the many hills of Sancerrois.” Herein lies what he regards as “the secret of this land”: depending on where you set foot, sometimes just a few meters apart, soil and bedrock are neither the same age nor the same nature. Thus, vine roots cross layers of rock with very different characteristics, the oldest of which would have been inaccessible without what Thibauld calls “the original geological accident” of the Sancere fault.
From west to east, soils are generally Terres Blanches, (“white earth,” or Kimmeridgian marls), caillottes (pebbly Portlandian limestone), and clay-siliceous soils. Terre Blanches covers 40% of Sancerre’s vineyard area, mainly on the steepest slopes. Thibauld explains that “the most clayey white earths produce a complex, full-bodied, and round white Sancerre, which will open as it ages.” Caillottes account for another 40% of vineyard soils, especially in Chavignol and Verdigny. The clay-siliceous soils are the thinnest and youngest layers. They contain flint, which has the benefit of continuously heating the vines. This terroir is found at the top and on the slopes of the large hills of eastern Sancerrois.
For Thibauld, the desire to be a winemaker came very early. But it was only when he started his studies in Beaune that he fully understood this profession would be his great passion. At school he was fortunate to have many close friends who shared this desire and to rub shoulders with families who were already internationally known as grand vigneron. All of this inspired and pushed him not to be satisfied with the courses he was given but also to pursue what he calls his own “personal vitivinicultural studies.” Jennifer studied law in Paris and Orléans and during this time, she took a wine course in Bordeaux “out of passion for the world of wine and thinking that it could one day be useful to me,” she says. Jennifer and Thibauld have been together for 17 years now, pursuing their shared dream shaping the domaine. Thibauld says, “The winegrower’s job is one of passion, sharing, meeting, and pleasure. It is also a profession where every effort is daily and we are fortunate to be surrounded by a united and hard-working team that allows us to carry out our projects. Wine itself is a multitude of details that add up in succession. We strive to be as precise and attentive as possible, while letting nature express itself, and that each of its details allow us to make a wine in our image.”
Vineyards and farming
The Denizot holdings are planted 75% to sauvignon blanc and 25% to pinot noir. The vast majority of their soils are caillotes, including their mythic single sites Bouffants and Côte de l’épée. A small percentage is Terre Blanche. Since taking over, Thibauld and Jennifer have reimagined the domaine’s approach to farming, currently converting to organics, expanding their crew to ensure even more precise, thoughtful work in the vines, and increasing the proportion of hand-harvested plots. “My philosophy,” says Thibauld, “is distinguished by respecting the plant and the soil that supports it. My team and I work every day to support the evolution of our plants in a healthy and controlled environment.”
In the cellar
Thibauld maintains a respectful, judicious hand in the cellar, “in order to let the natural flavors of our grapes express themselves and thus obtain wines with a fresh, crunchy, crystalline profile and beautiful mineral tension for the whites and rosés, and fleshy elegance for our reds.” He and Jennifer have recently renovated their old concrete vat room and constructed another to house their demi-muid, cigar, and others barrel for the various cuvées. They now favor native yeast fermentation and reduced the levels of added SO2 through gentle, reductive measures and long lees aging without racking. The taut, energetic profile that results is a compelling restatement of Sancerre.