On a scorchingly hot day in early July one’s first sight of Domaine Saint Préfert in Châteauneuf du Pape can seem somewhat like a mirage. The cream colored building with the mirrored “DOMAINE SAINT PREFERT” lettering rises out of the surrounding vineyards with blurred edges, the 35 degree heat (95 Fahrenheit) nearly visible.
The dry heat nearly knocks me off my feet as I get out of the car, but luckily the winery is as cool as can be. I am greeted with the traditional 3-bises (3 cheek kisses) by Isabel Ferrando, who seems happy to see me but a bit pre-occupied. She tells me that she was in the vineyards this morning with her engineer – and although the newly formed grapes are in perfect health, they fear that they may have lost up to 40% of their harvest due to coulure (shattered/un-pollinated flowers). The grenache seems to have been hit the worst, although the vines of Colombis were spared. She thinks this may have been caused by extreme temperature differences between day and night during flowering. She worries about another small harvest in 2013 (2012 is also down by 40/50%).
Although the quantities are down she mentions the outstanding quality of the 2012s, she says they are fresh, lively and have a northerly influence. “I know Daniel will like them”, she says, “as he loves the wines of the Northern Rhone!” The quantities were so low that she was not able to produce a Charles Giraud cuvée in 2012, she remarks, however, that the Auguste Favier cuvée benefited greatly and is absolutely delicious. These wines will be bottled between January and March 2014.
We get to talking about what is happening at the Domaine – 2013 marks Isabel’s 10th anniversary at Domaine Saint Préfert. She reminisces on how quickly the time has passed and how much she has accomplished. In ten years she has doubled her vineyard holdings in Châteauneuf du Pape (which stand at 24 hectares today) and added a Côtes du Rhône to her production made from an enclosed parcel of 4 hectares of vines right at the limit of the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation to the south. The Côtes du Rhône Clos Beatus Ille is actually why I’m here – I’ve bought a few cases for personal consumption every year since she began production (2011)!
We talk about her current team – lead by 23-year-old Alexandre – her right-hand man – whom she believes in fervently. He runs things in the vineyards and works alongside her in the cellar. Alexandre is busy at the moment setting up a watering system for the new vines that have just been replanted around the Domaine. They have outfitted a tractor that waters each vine individually as the tractor goes by. With the 35 degree heat, Isabel is anxious to get this going, fearful that the young vines may not survive the summer. The rest of Alexandre’s team is in the vineyards green harvesting and pulling leaves. There has been lots of rain this year and the vines, leaves and grass are growing quickly!
We get around to talking about her newest acquisition of 2 hectares of vines – 1h on the plateau above the village (adjacent to a parcel of Colombis) and 1 near the Domaine in the Quartier des Serres. She and her team began working in these parcels just two weeks ago and she is anxious to get them cleaned up and begin their conversion to organic agriculture. She also informs me that the Domaine is set to receive their official organic aggregation this year (although the recently acquired Côtes du Rhône vines and 2 new hectares of Châteauneuf du Pape will have to wait 4 years to be accepted). The aggregation will probably not be mentioned on her label, she tells me her efforts are for the safety of her team and out of respect for her vines and the environment.
In 2009, she decided to begin the conversion to organic agriculture and made the decision to become less interventionist in the cellar, striving to make wines that are fresher, leaner and true to their terroir. She is thrilled with the result.
Finally, we get around to discussing her latest project – Isabel de France. A small négociant operation that she is managing with two good oenologist friends with the intent to use her expertise to make and sell wines that are more affordable than the wines of the Domaine. They are sourcing juice from some of the best sites in the Southern Rhône, following the vinifications step by step and bottling only once Isabel has given her stamp of approval. As her most important client, Isabel chose to give Isabel de France exclusively to Daniel Johnnes and Michael Skurnik Wines.
2013 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Isabel and I look forward to a return visit to taste the 2012s in a few months!
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