The magic of the blend is the keystone in Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s rock-solid reputation; fifteen varieties are legally permitted in the appellation, and the proportion of each used in the final cuvée is a reflection of the vineyard’s potential, the estate’s philosophy and the vigneron’s artistry. The palette is juice, the canvas is the élevage and on opening day, and many years to come, the exhibition wears the familiar embossed insignia of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottle.
But is blending always the goal? Red wine comprises 95% of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s output, and most of it is built around the Big Four—Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and more recently, Cinsault. But as a quartet, they are hardly equal: As of 2014, 73% of the vineyards in the appellation were planted to Grenache, with Mourvèdre making up about 7% and Syrah, just under three percent—a number that may soon be supplanted by Cinsault as Syrah continues to lose popularity in the region. Even so, so dominant is Grenache in most blends that a winemaker would likely have to provide a vivisection of varietal profiles to explain how each trace addition affects the final cuvée. The blending spectrum in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, therefore, covers extremes: Château de Beaucastel frequently uses all the allowable grapes in their cuvée while another of Châteauneuf’s most important names, Château Rayas, uses only Grenache.
Despite its potential for splendor in the glass, Grenache has never made the leap into the rarified atmosphere of ‘noble grapes.’ But in the right hands, grown in the correct lieu-dit and farmed correctly, it can be as expressive of terroir as Pinot Noir and as complex and age-worthy as Cabernet Sauvignon. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it produces most favorably on sandy soils that provide delicacy and finesse, but where there is also limestone for structure, red clay for the development of rich (but not harsh) tannins and the small stones known as ‘galets’ for power. For a grape that produces such bold and muscular wines, Grenache is thin-skinned and not overly acidic, so it must be picked at an optimum period of phenolic ripeness to avoid becoming flabby and overly alcoholic. Vine age is of extreme importance for Grenache, with younger cultivars making pale-colored and often mediocre wines—60 -100 years appears to be an ideal age for the production of wine of consistently good quality.
If a Grenachiste is a loyalist who fights for Grenache, it would be hard to find a High Priestess more qualified than Isabel Ferrando. A former banker, she learned winemaking at Domaine Raspail-Ay in Gigondas deepened by the tutelage of the late legendary winemaker Henri Bonneau, and in 2003, purchased the seventy-year old Domaine Saint-Préfert from the Serre family, one of the region’s first domains to estate bottle. That year, the property stood at a little over thirty acres, all in the Les Serres lieu-dit south of the village of Châteauneuf.
Once a successful first vintage was in the cellar, Ferrando began to purchase more land in CdP, expanding her holdings to its current 55 acres. Among her acquisitions was a small parcel of old-vine Grenache vines that became Domaine Isabel Ferrando ‘Colombis.’ Meanwhile, in 2013, Domaine Saint Préfert earned its certification for using 100% biodynamic farming, an agricultural technique that is somewhat easier pull off in Châteauneuf thanks to the sporadic but predictable Mistral winds that naturally protect vines from pests and mildew.
Still, it is Ferrando’s ever-growing expertise and hands-on winemaking that produces her outstanding portfolio. Says ‘The Grenachiste’: “There is no secret formula to making great wines in Châteauneuf. I work with a young team who is always open to new ideas. We rely on tradition without being trapped by it, working with whole-cluster fermentations without added yeasts because we discovered that it increased freshness in the wines and lowered alcohol, giving the wines vibrancy. Aging occurs in a mix of concrete and used foudres for up to 18 months.”
Domaine Saint Préfert, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Réserve Auguste Favier’2019 ($80)
The eponymous August Favier was Isabel Ferrando’s maternal grandfather; the lieu-dit that produces this blend— 85% Grenache and 15% Cinsault—is also named for an original owner. Les Serres, a vineyard in the southernmost part of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, takes its name from Fernand Serre, who planted it in 1928. The grapes are hand-picked and vinified separately; the Grenache is aged in cement and the Cinsault in 600-liter barrels. Floral and exotic, the wine expresses a full-bodied core of blackberry draped with a lacy texture throughout, showing rich cassis and raspberry coulis flecked with the garrigue herbs that are native to the area. A long, elegant finish with a surprisingly silky tannic edge.
Domaine Saint Préfert, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Classique’ 2019 ($52)
With a base cuvée of 85% Grenache and 5% each of Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, aged entirely in concrete tanks, is classic varietal choice as well as in name. Vinified from middle-aged vines—30 years old, tops—this wine is an expression of exuberance crammed with juicy raspberry and bright cherry and light hints of licorice. The sharp subcurrents of smoke and minerality provide a clue that these vines, and the wines they produce, will continue to improve with age.
Domaine Saint Préfert, Côtes-du-Rhône ‘Clos Beatus Ille’ 2020 ($29)
‘Beatus Ille’ is Latin for ‘Happy Man’—it’s a line from Horace’s 2nd Epode and no doubt includes happy women as well. The wine is 85% Grenache blended with about 15% Cinsault from two parcels—La Lionne in the Sorgues district, just at the southern border of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and another parcel in Vedène. It also contains a bit of Syrah from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A supple and affordable entryway into Isabel Ferrando’s world, the wine shows the traits of the great Crus in Southern Rhône in an approachable package; cassis, plum and fresh red berries with hints of Asian spice and truffles.
Domaine Saint Préfert, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc2020 ($80)
This wine is a blend of 60% Clairette and 40% Roussanne, and is moderately acidic with a nose that displays honeysuckle, acacia flower and peach. The Roussanne lends a rich tannic structure while the Clairette offers minerality and the region’s characteristic salinity.
This week’s package offering is comprised of the four wines featured above: One of each of the three cuvées of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and three of Côtes-du-Rhòne for a total of six bottles at $299. The quantity of each included is, also, indicated in the write-up about the wine.
Domaine Saint Préfert, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Collection Charles Giraud’2019 ($159)
60% Grenache, 35% Mourvèdre and 5% Syrah, Isabel Ferrando’s ‘tête de cuvée’ is made from the oldest vines in two parcels—les Serres and le Cristia. The former features the famous, multipurpose galet stones of Châteauneuf that retain heat and night and protect the soil from erosion. Le Cristia is a sandy block with drainage ideal for Mourvèdre’s root system, which does not produce well otherwise. The wine shows concentrated boysenberry and violet pastille and candied fruit and bright, chewy back-end lift. As Auguste Favier was Isabel Ferrando’s maternal grandfather, Charles Giraud was her father’s father.
Domaine Préfert (Isabel Ferrando), Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Colombis’ 2019 ($159)
Isabel Ferrando affixes her name to the mono-varietal wines she produces at Domaine Préfert. ‘Colombis’ is 100% Grenache, but a blend from three parcels in the western part of the appellation: Lieu-dit Colombis, featuring sandy soils, les Roues, where clay lies just beneath the surface, and le Cristia (not far from Château Rayas), where sand again predominates. The vines average 60 years-old and the concentrated juice from the small clusters produce a wine that critic Jeb Dunnuck referred to as “One of my favorite wines in the world.” Expansive in bouquet and again on the palate, the wine shows spice-accented currant preserves with incense and cola with crisp mineral undertones and an intensely long finish framed by velvety, well-integrated tannins.
Domaine Préfert (Isabel Ferrando), Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘F601’ 2018 ($850)
‘F601’ may sound like an unpoetic name for a lieu-dit, and in fact, it is an arid block in the southern part of the estate. It is also atypical of the terroirs of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; fifteen feet below the surface, sand made of degraded quartz can be found and a bit higher up, extra moisture is lodged in a fine layer of blue clay fed by the mica gravel and rolled pebbles already visible at ground level. Of this remarkable habitat for Cinsault Isabel Ferrando writes, “I needed 16 years of observation and apprenticeship to find the audacity to throw away the rule book and forge a personal relationship with this terror, guided by instinct and sensuality. With the 2018 vintage, I am launching ‘F601, and for the first time, the pure and absolute expression of the fusion between this block of land and the venerable Cinsault vines planted on it in 1928. At this defining moment in my life, I am happy to share with you my sense of wonder in this iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Welcome to F601!”
Domaine Saint Préfert, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2020 ($189) – 1500 ml
Before the wine, why the magnum? Surface area plays a tremendous role in the changes that a wine undergoes during élevage and later, ‘en bouteille’, and these changes happen at a rate that is in proportion to the size of the container. In a magnum—roughly twice the size of a conventional wine bottle—the aging process is slowed down and the wine will keep fresher longer; a plus if the wine is white. This wine is a blend of 60% Clairette and 40% Roussanne from the Serres lieu-dit, where galets, gravel and blue clay abound. It ages on lees for six months in large oak barrels, one third of which is new, one third year-old and the last third two year-old barrels. Moderately acidic, the nose shows honeysuckle, acacia flower and peach with the Roussanne lending a rich tannic structure and the Clairette offering minerality and the region’s characteristic salinity.
Domaine Saint Préfert, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc’Cuvée Spéciale Vieilles Clairettes’ 2019 ($432) – 1500 ml
Only produced ‘en magnum’, this is a heavily allocated gem with less than a thousand bottles made and even fewer exported. 100% Clairette from 100-year-old vines in the dry-farmed lieu-dit ‘Quartier des Serre’ renowned for being one of the most sun-drenched plots in the appellation as well as nurturing vines in well-drained, river-rolled pebble soil. An exquisite, unctuous expression of an under-appreciated varietal, the wine reflects both sun and sand with warm notes of honey, quince jam, creamy lemon curd and pink grapefruit acidity as a backbone.
The quintessence of a year that the old winemaker’s cliché refers to ‘a vintage made in the vineyard’—based on the difficulty that growers had bringing in the harvest. Rains in May and June created a poor fruit set for Grenache, and the threat of mildew was redoubled by the failure of the mistral; a rare occurrence in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Humidity skyrocketed, making 2018 the dampest year since 1973, and organic farmers grew frustrated that natural treatments were washed away by un-forecasted rain. The result was a harvest that in particular showed a 40%-60% reduction in Grenache. Syrah and Mourvèdre fared better, and these varieties tend to be more pronounced in the blends.
Grenache, however, enjoyed a marvelous renaissance in 2019, and for this sun, heat and wind-loving varietal, the vintage was ideal. An abundant fruit set was followed by three heat waves interspersed with rain and more moderate temperatures, and as a result, there was no heat stress for the vines, and ripening never shut down. Growers were able to pick at optimum ripeness and nothing much had to be done in the vineyard. The fruit’s health carried through to the cellar, with many growers reporting that their vinification were fast and efficient.
Following the extreme heat of 2019, growers were hoping for plenty of rainfall over the winter to replenish aquafers, and they got it. An astonishing 15 -20 inches of rain fell between October and December, and a mild early spring saw vine buds break nearly two weeks earlier than 2019. The summer was hot, but not unreasonably so; rains were moderate and frequent enough to prevent heat stress. Harvest for white grapes began in the third week of August, and the 2020 vintage is extremely strong in this category, however small (only 5% of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s total). It is characterized by elegance and beauty, with a nose marked by citrus and stone fruit and a palate that combines balanced acidity with a prolonged finish.