Thursday, 7 November 2013

Domaine Isabel Ferrando, Saint Prefert, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France

Isabel Ferrando is a star. She is a very bright, commercial, passionate, vivacious, attractive and confident lady. Some of the crusty old growers of Chateauneuf-Du-Pape must have stirred when she moved into a run-down, old Chateau to the south of the village in 2002. I am sure she was the talk of the village for many reasons. Regarded as an ‘outsider’ (mind you, only from up the road in Carpentras, about 20km away), she has made a huge impact on CdP and its wines. 

I had a dinner with her and other guests at Berry Brothers this Monday (18th Nov 2013) and I also spent some time with her in October 2013, right in the middle of the harvest, and I was hugely impressed. I had heard a lot about her, bought some of her wines over the years and met her briefly in London but this was the first time I saw her chez elle, directing affairs with great surety and confidence at her domaine.

This was in spite of a very difficult growing season which presented some significant challenges, especially with her Grenache which had suffered, like most growers in the areas, from coulure (failure of the grapes to develop after flowering). Nonetheless, Isabel was very excited by the vintage which should produce small quantities of wine but of high quality. I can see that she isn’t someone to see the glass half empty, not outwardly anyway.

Before winemaking, Isabel had been a banker for years with the Credit Agricole near Nîmes. She had also played handball to a very high level so had never drunk much wine, her fitness always being her priority. However, her moment of epiphany came in around 1997/8 when she was out with friends for dinner. They ate Chapon (a castrated domestic cock fattened for eating – how quintessentially French) with cream sauce accompanied by a Coche-Dury Meursault. To quote Isabel, it was ‘hallucinant’ (mind blowing).

She knew the wine business well having advised and supported many growers in the region as a banker, so a career transformation wouldn’t be a complete jump into the unknown.

After a couple of years thinking through the change, her husband happened to be sitting next to the local Mayor at an airport while waiting for a flight and he started to discuss the possibility of a domaine becoming available for sale. After two very patient years of waiting and negotiating with the then owner, Isabel and her husband bought the property and vineyards.

Her wines
Her wines are stunning and right at the very top of the appellation in terms of quality. I love older style, elegant Chateauneuf-du-Pape and hers did not disappoint. Her methods are a mix of the traditional (she doesn't always de-stem - it depends on the year - or overuse oak) and more modern (approachable when young but with the ability to age). They reminded me of Clos des Papes and both have the ability to make very concentrated but elegant wines which age like fine Burgundies but which can also be drunk young. Chateauneuf has suffered in recent years from big, jammy, over-extracted wines but hers (and Vincent Avril’s for that matter) are a lovely antidote to them. It is no surprise that Isabel is very fond of Clos des Papes too.

Henri Bonneau is a great friend and mentor to her, and I can see that she tries to take the best of his traditions, expertise and experience and overlay it with her own style, personality and some more modern practices. She works organically and, like many growers, uses some biodynamic methods although she isn’t biodynamic certified.

A great example of this is the Clairette Vieilles Vignes, spécial cuvee, which Henri inspired her to make. Henri used to make a Clairette wine and he gave her the last one (a 1947) which Henri’s father had made. “It was beautiful, David, still fresh and elegant with fruit. We ate Tête de Veau and the wine had enough body to match it perfectly” It was another vin hallucinant.

Isabel’s is made from Clairette Rose et Blanche from 80-100 year old vines. She lets a little botrytis develop because this brings richness, complexity and candied orange (like you can taste in the best Sauternes wines) . She made it for the first time in 2011 and the 2012s will only be released in magnums. Quantities are miniscule so don’t expect any.

Isabel’s very old Clairette shows the potential of this grape if the vines are of sufficient age and grown in the right terroir. Marie Richaud (wife of Marcel Richaud in Cairanne) had explained how they also make a Clairette only wine but it is a glugger, only made because they have the grapes.

The wines we tasted in CdP, October 2013

Tradition, Red, 2011
Made from 80% Grenache. There is lovely mature kirsch and ripe morello cherries (from the Grenache) on the nose and a gorgeous mouth feel with fruit coating the mouth. It is a seductive wine which caresses the mouth. It has a generous and ripe and soft enough to drink now. It lingers in the mouth and had very fine-grained tannins.

Giraud, Red, 2011
Alongside the kirsch, there is that beef blood aroma which you often get from Rhone wines, typically those made with some Mourvedre and Syrah. It is richer than the Tradition as you would expect, with licorice and garrigue on the palate.

The 40% Mourvedre in this blend gives it a more solid backbone and tannic structure. It is more reserved on the nose, even a bit backward, with notes of black fruits, grilled meat and beef blood. It has real depth and multi-faceted on the palate. The tannins are in evidence but they are round and ripe, and potential for a long future assured. It is a beautiful wine. 2011 wasn’t meant to be a top year relative to 2007, 09 and 10 but, like 2008, I love it (I have drunk most of my Clos des Papes 2008 and they were delicious).

Giraud is the name of Isabel's husband's grandfather. Favier, her other red cuvée, is named after her maternal grandfather whom she never met.

Colombis, Red, 2011
This wine is made from a newly acquired area (Colombis, Roues and Cristia). It is 100% Grenache. It has an unctuous bouquet and smells very ripe with a hint of raisin. Its texture is soft and satiny but with great concentration. It is an opulent wine, possibly needing some Syrah in the blend to give it more balance. Feels as though it could go over the top quite soon?

Clairette Vieilles Vignes, spécial cuvee, 2012 (from demi-muid)
It is rich and toasty with some oak on the nose.  Made from 80-100 year old vines of Clairette Blanche and Rose. Isabel likes a bit of botrytis in it to because it adds some richness. The nose has pear, mirabelle plum pineapple, peach and honeysuckle. It has a lovely southern Rhone perfume. Its unctuous, creamy mouth feel reminded me of Beaucastel’s VV (although that is made from Roussanne) but it had lovely freshness too. Very long finish. I could drink this now although based on what Henri Bonneau told Isabel, I am sure it will develop with age and last a long time. There is hardly any of this made so Isabel will have fun deciding on how to allocate it (she has promised me a couple of magnums, n'est-ce pas Isabel?!).

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