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His Father’s Son: Grand Mayne 1955-2011
BY NEAL MARTIN | MAY 18, 2021
The Arches is packed, the air heavy with Cohiba cigars and red wine. The Good Bishop Gill holds court at the bar and makes sure the vino flows at a rate commensurate with a Friday night. The banter ricochets from one to another amongst the crowd, including a pair of bright and bushy-tailed Saint-Émilion vignerons, Juliette Bécot and Jean-Antoine Nony. I can’t recall what we talked about over the din, most likely something utterly inane, though I do remember the novelty, shooting the breeze with winemakers younger than my tender years. They were like bubbly teenagers, chatty and funny. Let loose in London, they were exploiting the city’s nightlife and unsurprisingly, when I visited the stands the following morning of Beau-Séjour Bécot and Grand Mayne at a consumer event in Marylebone, I found them empty. A couple of perplexed early birds fluttered around, wondering whether they should phone the authorities, let them know a couple of Bordeaux winemakers had gone AWOL. Before any search party was sent out, they materialized looking a bit weary and bleary-eyed, though it wasn’t long before they were enthusiastically pouring their wines for thirsty Bordeaux-lovers.
How time flies. That was almost 20 years ago. I watched Bécot and Nony grow into adults, slip into prominent roles at their respective estates, each with their own families, whilst thankfully retaining all their joie-de-vivre. With respect to Jean-Antoine Nony, at that time I am sure he foresaw a future where he would gradually take the reins from his father at Grand Mayne, working side-by-side for many years until Nony père took his well-earned retirement.
But fate had other plans. Jean-Antoine Nony had to step into a leadership role sooner than he could have foreseen or wanted. Life never works out the way you think it will.
The facade of Grand Mayne made out of unmistakable local sandstone.
The etymology is straightforward. “Mayne” derives from ‘Maine’ or ‘manor’ in old French dialect. The original 16th century manor house belonged to the Libourne-based Laveau family, who made their fortune from overseas trade and land ownership. When Jean Laveau died in 1836, he was Saint-Émilion’s largest owner, presiding over 288-hectares of vineyard that included both the Mayne and Soutard estates. Despite overseeing such enormous acreage, Laveau was motivated by quality that was reflected in his wines’ prices. Mayne comprised 140-hectares of which 30-hectares were under vine. Though his holdings were dispersed amongst family heirs, Mayne was kept intact. Subsequently the cru was renamed Grand Mayne, even if, contrary to its name, parcels were subsequently cleaved away down to 21 hectares, the heart some 17 hectares of Grand Cru Classé.
The grinning boy in the bow tie is Jean-Pierre Nony, his father, Jean Nony, is in the dark suit to his left. The others are members of the team at Grand Mayne, smartly dressed in their suits. Photo courtesy of the Nony family.
Jean-Antoine’s grandfather, Jean Nony, was born in 1895 in Corrèze, the same region of France home to a veritable wellspring of entrepreneurs, including the Moueix family. As part of the migration to Bordeaux, Nony built up a successful merchant business in the Chartron district of the city.
“My grandfather was a merchant like the Moueixs,” Nony explains. “He bottled other estates’ wines such as Montrose, including a Nony bottling of the 1947 Cheval Blanc. His major markets were the north of France and Benelux countries. He was one of the largest distributors of l’Église-Clinet.” According to the Féret guide published at the time, Jean Nony also produced two other labels, one called Beau-Mazerat that was absorbed into Grand Mayne in 1928 and the other, Château Cassevert. “In 1934 my grandfather bought Grand Mayne from Noël Berbudeau, whose estate had suffered after the 1929 crisis. He strove to improve the quality of the wine and sold exclusively through his company, Négoce Jean Nony until the 1982 vintage. My father continued to use the Beau-Mazerat and Cassevert labels [the latter not a second wine – more like a deluxe cuvée] though he stopped using them in 1986 to create our second label Les Plantes du Mayne, from 1986 to 2007, that became Filia de Grand Mayne since 2008.” Cassevert, located in the commune of St. Christophe des Bardes, is now part of Château Tour Saint Christophe.
Grand Mayne had an eminent admirer on the Left Bank. “In the sixties or early seventies, Baron Philippe de Rothschild was at a restaurant in Belgium. He found the 1955 Grand Mayne so good that he exchanged it for two cases of 1955 Mouton-Rothschild. But I have never seen the bottles.”
Jean-Pierre and Marie-Françoise Nony.
Jean Nony passed away in 1975. Jean-Antoine’s parents, Jean-Pierre and Marie-Françoise Nony, resided at Grand Mayne from 1977. “They got married that year when my father was 31 and my mother 35, quite late. They had a beautiful baby in 1978,” quips the beautiful baby. “My father wanted to sell the négoçiant company and live at Grand Mayne to develop the property. Around 1977 or 1978 he sold the company to Woltner. My parents undertook extensive renovation work and invested in new technology because they wanted Grand Mayne to belong to the elite of Saint-Émilion properties. My father was a dynamic young man and had to organise the succession with his sisters. Michel Rolland has been consulting since 1973, one of his first clients as they went to university together. Rolland tried to make good wines but there was a lack of money. He used to say his first vintage was 1984 because he felt that 1982 was over-cropped. Part of the wines were matured in tank and the best in barrel, but it was too late. In fact, he thought 1981 and 1983 Grand Mayne were better.”
Jean-Pierre Nony passed away in May 2001 at just 55. I remember hearing the news, shocked at his untimely death.
“My father was a special man,” Jean-Antoine Nony confided. “He always wanted to make the best wine possible. He studied at the University of Oenology. He didn’t really know all the techniques but he knew that he had a great terroir. At the beginning of 2001, my father started feeling unwell. My mother was a former nurse and pushed him to get examined. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in March that year and his health declined rapidly. He passed away that May at just 55. I was just 22 years old and my brother two years younger. His passing felt brutal. I had no time to prepare for it and I could only comprehend the loss as time passed. It undoubtedly made both my brother and I stronger. I have fewer memories of him compared to others, but they are very intense. He was a very kind and charming man, singular and extremely intelligent, keen on history and politics. He was intellectually very open and bought newspapers of all political leanings every week. And he was passionate about wine. From 1998 until the end of 2000, every Sunday we had a blind dinner at Grand Mayne together with my three best friends, fellow wine students, where we were introduced to different wine regions and growers. That was rare at the time, when people seldom thought of wine beyond their own region. It is a trait of the French to categorize people and place them in a box that they cannot escape from, and my father made sure that I had my own opinion and developed my own taste. That was a great gift he gave to me and for that, I am eternally grateful. He also translated a fundamental value that is often forgotten, that of respect of place and origin of wine. I wish that I had known him longer but I am proud of the “little” things that he instilled. This influenced my own open-mindedness towards wine and its culture.”
Jean-Antoine Nony was almost thrust into the limelight, still young and learning the ropes with challenging growing seasons such as 2003 on the horizon. I recall meeting him in the cloisters of the Église Saint-Émilion that infamous summer, pouring Grand Mayne and trying to keep it cool in a sweaty shirt and tie, wilting like the vines under the merciless heat. Nony was one of my first interviewees on the original Wine-Journal. Unearthing the original Q&A from early 2004, Nony professes admiration for Léoville Las-Cases and confessed how Parker’s recent scathing review of the 2003 Grand Mayne had stung. I also enquired about his musical predilections but had no preference for anything in particular.
He worked alongside his mother Marie-Françoise Nony until her retirement in 2011. He feels that his first real vintage was 2012 when he could make all the decisions. Sadly, his mother passed away in April 2020, whereupon ownership has passed to Jean-Antoine and his younger brother Damien Nony. Jean-Antoine Nony is now happily married to Yseult de Gaye, whose family owns a mango import business, as well as Grand Corbin Manuel in Saint-Émilion and La Création in Pomerol. “Yseult’s cousin, Héloise Aubert, whose family owns La Couspaude, introduced us in 2008 during a Union de Grand Cru tasting in Bordeaux. We were both with someone else at that time. Then we were both single in the spring of 2011 and a few weeks later, obviously she couldn’t resist to my crazy charm. We married at Grand Mayne in July 2013 and had two beautiful kids, Sixtine and Jean, in October 2017. It’s the proof that UGC tasting is the place of happiness!”
Also, I am glad to say that Jean-Antoine Nony has developed decent music taste that strands Daft Punk to Sinatra via The Libertines, though his wife gets top marks for namechecking Richie Haven’s peerless Going Back To My Roots. So now that we have the music sorted, let’s take a look at the vineyard.
The Grand Mayne vineyard.
The following sections are written as a Q&A, as I did with last year’s piece on Château Lagrange.
Can you tell me the location of the vineyard? Who are your neighbours?
“We are placed right in the geographical centre of the commune of Saint-Émilion, the château is situated 1.5 kilometers to the west of the village at the foot of the limestone plateau. Our neighbours are Château Laroze (northwest), Clos des Jacobins (north), Franc Mayne (northeast), Beau-Séjour Bécot (east), Coutet (south east), Couvent des Jacobins (a small part on the south) and Arnaud de Jacquemeau (a small part on the west).”
What is the size of the vineyard? Has it changed over the years through acquisitions or sale?
The size of the vineyard is 17-hectares in a single block and Grand Cru Classé since the first classification. From what we know the size of the vineyard has not changed for at least three centuries.
A photo of the vineyard from a map that hangs in the vat room.
What is the soil type and how does it change through the vineyard?
We have three different soils. First, there is the slope, 70 to 80 meters in altitude, with a great exposition due west. Here, there is pure limestone at the top and limestone on clay at the bottom. Second, there is the foot of the slope, also with a due west exposition, where the altitude is 45 to 60 meters. Here, there is limestone on clay and clay. Third, the entrance of the property at an altitude of 40-45 meters where there is old sand on clay. The two first soils make it into the Grand Vin.
What is the composition of grape varieties and again, has that changed over the years?
Today we have 77% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. I have replanted and I will replant more Cabernet Franc in the next future. In the 1990s and 2000s we had more Merlot, about 85%. But during the 1950s and in the 1960s we had only 60% of Merlot and much more Cabernet Franc. So the idea is to increase the amount of Cabernet Franc for different reasons. First, because I love Cabernet Franc, which is the best reason! More seriously, in order to obtain more freshness and elegance for the style I want [in light of] global warming. Second, Cabernet Franc is more resistant to mildew.”
What is the rootstock and clones used? Is there any massal selection?
On the slope we have Fercal, on the foot of the slope we have Gravesac and at the entrance of the property we have 3309. We have one plot of Cabernet Franc on massal selection that we are going to use for our next plantation of Cabernet Franc.
How do you replace superannuated vines?
I have launched a program of replantation from 2012 to 2035. We also do complantation every winter on 10 hectares.
What is the pruning and vineyard husbandry throughout the year? E.g. green harvesting etc.
We use simple or double Guyot for pruning, depending on the vine, de-budding (ebourgeonnage) and manual leaf removal, and green harvest are not systematic depending on the age of the plot and on the vintage, we remove each bunch so that they are not in contact with each other.”
Do you practice organic or biodynamic viticulture in the vineyard?
We are organic in the vineyard but not biodynamic. In 2018 we lost 60% of the crop due to mildew, so I don’t want certification. I don’t think there is only one way.
How do you choose when to begin the harvest? Has this changed over the years?
We have begun to look more precisely at the aromatic profiles at the end of August beginning of September in addition to the analysis in lab (pH, sugar, tartaric and malic acid). Then plot by plot, we refine and determine the harvest date by tasting the grapes every day.
Has this changed over the years?
The process is still the same, but today with global warming and the style I want to give to our wine, in the last five years we have decided to pick the grapes earlier than previously in order to obtain more freshness and tension in the fruit.
How many pickers do you use and where do they come from?
We have a troop of 20 pickers who mostly come from the region.
And how do you sort the grapes?
We have three sorting tables, one before de-stemming and two afterwards, the last one with people sorting by hand. All grapes have been transferred into the vat by gravity since 2016.
The cuverie at Château Grand Mayne.
Can you tell me the set up of the winery, for example, the number of vats, type and size?
Until 1973 we had wooden tanks, some of which were 200 years old. Acting on the advice of Prof. Émile Peynaud, these were changed for 115hl and 130hl stainless steel tanks, which represented the amount you could fill in a day. Along with Figeac, we were one of the first estates on the Right Bank to introduce them. We began to sell these vats in 2000 at a higher price than we bought them because of the price of steel. This process continued until 2013 so that we have smaller vessels, between 25hl and 80hl using both 50% wood and 50% stainless steel. I have been working with my new technical manager, Pierre-Yves Petit, since 2016. He has contributed to the change of style of Grand Mayne that I began two years earlier. We are very close and we exchange a lot with each other, discussing the evolutions at the estate. Pierre-Yves Petit is assisted in the cellar by Philippe Oger, who can be considered our maître de chai.
What is the approach to alcoholic fermentation and maceration? Again, has this changed in recent years, especially with the hotter summers?
“Until 2016 we had a ‘classic’ vinification’, by which I mean, quite a lot of pumping over, sometimes pigeage and a long maceration, more than 30 days. Since 2014 but especially since 2016 we have been evolving. We no longer use sulfites during cuvaison and protect the must with bio-protection (non-fermenting yeast). We do less pumping-over that are done by hand.
How do you use the vin de presse?
We separate the vin de presse into three. The first pressed wine is drained, then the heart of the press and the final press are kept separate until the blending, but we do a light filtration in December.
Can you give me details about the barrel maturation?
We use six cooperages. The most important is Taransaud, and then Sylvain. The others are Seguin Moreau, Demptos and Radoux. We have also started working with Darnajou for few years and they are becoming increasingly important for us. All the barrels undergo a medium toasting. In January we do one racking after the malolactic fermentation, one in May and the last one in March or April the following year. The length of time the wine stays in barrels is around 17 months. Usually for our wine, longer barrel maturation is better than a short one in terms of integration and balance. What is extremely important for us is the kind of barrels we use [rather than the duration]. In the nineties we used 100% new oak. A powerful vintage, like 2016, 2019 or 2020, well accepts a long period in barrel with a maximum of 60% new oak. For 2013, for example, we did quite a long élevage mostly in one or two-year old barrels”.
What is your view on the use of amphore?
We don’t use any amphore. Amphore is fashionable. I hear many different opinions about it from my friends who use it, but I am not convinced to test it yet.
Jean-Antoine Nony, about to embark on the vertical tasting that spanned three generations of his family.
This vertical stems from a long overdue visit to Bordeaux at the end of February 2020. My previous visit must have been in the late nineties. I have vague memories of Jean-Pierre Nony holding court, brandishing a bottle of 1947 Grand Mayne. So naturally, it was a pleasure to return after many years, conduct a comprehensive vertical going back 25 vintages and discover more about the estate, little knowing that it would be one of my final Bordeaux château visits for many months. The vertical tasting covered three generations of the Nony family: Jean, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Antoine, les trois Jeans, commencing from 1955 up to 2011. The older vintages were a privilege to taste because, although they are by no means the most expensive or coveted wines compared to say, Cheval Blanc or Ausone, they are very rarely seen. Despite the impeccable provenance, the earlier vintages were discombobulated by a combination of bad luck, age and the inescapable fact that the winery was very rudimentary in this era.
It would have been wonderful to wax lyrical about that 1955 Grand Mayne given the apocryphal tale about Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Unfortunately, we were not in luck and the bottle was out of condition. However hard Nony and I wished this bottle to pull itself together (isn’t that something we all do?) in the end, we resigned ourselves to the revelation waiting for another day. The 1959 Grand Mayne put the 1955 in sharp relief. Whilst I would hesitate in placing the 1959 amongst the highest echelons of that great vintage, it has lasted well and will appeal to those who like fully mature Right Bank wines. Hopes were raised for the 1964 Grand Mayne, a renowned Right Bank growing season, but like the 1955 we had bad luck with respect to not just one but two bottles opened.
When it was served at a dinner, a couple of friends initially thought it was actually 1964 Cheval Blanc due to the similarity of the label.
This was compensated by a rare 1964 Cassevert that just happened to appear on a merchant’s list when penning this article. Youthful, quite plush with red fruit and iodine on the nose, the palate is stout and quite concentrated. What it lacks in finesse it compensates in exuberance and its redoubtable nature. The 1967 Grand Mayne is a pleasant surprise, a bit rickety perhaps, yet it continues to offer bucolic pleasure. It is eclipsed by the superior balsamic-tinged 1970 Grand Mayne although the 1975 Grand Mayne is clinging on to dear life by its fingertips.
The eighties decade should have seen Grand Mayne progress, however, as already mentioned, a lack of investment clearly stymied quality. The 1982 Grand Mayne affirms why Jean-Pierre Nony regarded it as a disappointment. Things move up a gear towards the end of the decade. The 1985 Grand Mayne is a useful mature vintage. Between the 1988, 1989 and 1990, I have always had a penchant for the 1989 Grand Mayne that demonstrates cleaner and greater fruit concentration and longevity. Large formats or bottles with impeccable provenance continue to drink well. The pick of the nineties is definitely the 1998 Grand Mayne that put the estate on the map after praise from Robert Parker. It revels in what was a great Right Bank season, whilst the 1995 Grand Mayne also continues to drink well.
The 21st century has witnessed much more consistency. Both the 2000 and 2001 Grand Mayne continue to drink well and I found it difficult to pick between the two. Even the 2003 Grand Mayne manages to shrug off the merciless heat of that summer to produce a Right Bank that is better than a lot of baked Pomerols and Saint-Émilions of that year, even if I wouldn’t wait too long to crack it open. Throughout that decade, I feel that the wines excel in warmer and richer vintages such as 2005 and 2009. During this period, one can find the Rolland imprimatur and, in some years, Grand Mayne flirted with being just a bit trop. This is something that Jean-Antoine Nony has addressed. I feel recent vintages have achieved greater finesse via fine tannins, the wine is now fine-tuned.
This was an enlightening tasting. Although it is always a privilege to taste old vintages, the headline is that the best bottlings from Grand Mayne were made in the last decade. Prior to that, the wines intermittently showed its potential, but whenever I conversed with Jean-Antoine Nony, there was a feeling that there was room for improvement. “I want wines that I like to drink and proud of, wines that give me an emotion,” he told me. That is now being achieved more regularly than ever before.
Grand Mayne has always been family-run, so the loss of both Jean-Pierre and more recently Marie-Françoise Nony has impacted the estate. Napoleonic inheritance laws means that sadly too often the rightful heirs are forced to relinquish ownership. Thankfully that did not occur here succeeding in setting the foundation for their sons to build upon. Whereas once the wines of Grand Mayne knocked on the door of the elite, now they belong amongst them, something that I believe is not fully recognized by the market.
Now Jean-Antoine Nony and his brother are creating their own legacy, one to pass on to his own children, who one day in the future, may be pouring their wines at consumer events. If they are tardy or seem a bit bleary-eyed, well, they are just enjoying what life has to offer. After all, what else are you supposed to do?
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