Vintner Isabel Ferrando has pursued winemaking with a pioneering spirit. Her ebullient wines are as original as she is, writes Ted Loos.
The Rhône valley is the southernmost of France’s great wine regions, and it has always rewarded winemakers with a hearty and trailblazing spirit. If Bordeaux is aristocratic and Burgundy poetic, the Rhône is wild and adventurous, with a rocky and dramatic landscape to match the full-bodied power that comes through in the glass.
Certainly Isabel Ferrando fits the Rhône mould perfectly. Ferrando, 48, makes wines for two sought-after labels in the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation: Domaine Ferrando and Domaine Saint Préfert. Her wines – mostly Grenache-focused reds, but some whites too – win high scores and yield high praise for their finesse. Though extraordinary, they are just part of the story. How Ferrando arrived at this place in her career is something of a modern Rhône legend.
Ferrando did not come to her vocation the usual way – which in France typically means inheriting a family estate or apprenticing for years under a more experienced winemaker. Slow and steady is just not her thing. A dozen years ago she decided to move her family to the area and buy a property, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I wanted to do something exceptional,” she says simply.
She was born in Carpentras, France, not far from her current home. “In my family, growing up, we drank Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for marriages, birthdays, Christmas,” she recalls. “I remember the aromas of candied fruits, licorice, dark chocolate, peppermint.” Later, Ferrando worked as director of communications for a government official in Avignon, and then for the large French bank Crédit Agricole. But something was stirring. “I had the idea to be a winemaker,” she says. “I read a book by Robert Parker, who writes very well and loves Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He talked about the Rhône valley with such a passion and love of winemakers, I was touched.”
Some people would start by collecting Rhône wines and leave it at that, but not Ferrando. She got in the car and drove to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, spending two weeks tasting and learning. “I realised I have to better understand the wine of my region, and there was much I didn’t know,” she says. “When I got home I said to my husband, I would like to be a winemaker because I have had it with the bank. And he said, ‘why not?’”
She adds, “I have a super husband,” which came in handy when he helped broker the deal to buy Saint Préfert. “I think the owner was in love with him,” she jokes.
Now the owner of 24 hectares in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Ferrando enjoys the contrast between the vineyards for her two labels, which are both made at the same facility, and so far she has fulfilled her aspiration to be exceptional.
Robert Parker has praised her “brilliant succession of wines,” and, the career-making critic calls Saint Préfert “one of the most passionately run estates in all of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” The wines are served in the restaurants of Michelin-starred chefs like Alain Passard, Paul Bocuse and Daniel Boulud.
As Annie Turso, the wine director for Asiate, the restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental New York, puts it, Ferrando has been “able to successfully articulate not just one, but two expressions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” (She also makes a Côtes du Rhône).
Ferrando is a disciple of the concept of terroir, that often-cited (but not always fully respected) idea that certain vineyard sites have unique characteristics that can transmit directly to grapes, and to a wine. “It is not me, it’s the terroir,” she says. “I am only the book, not the hand that writes the story. The terroir writes the story.”
For both labels, Ferrando has decidedly thrown off the traditional rustic Rhône taste profile, which sometimes borders on rough. “I am a girl, not a man,” she says of the fresh style she has brought to the wines. “I am young. I think I am very modern. I’m happy to live in my era.”
Both labels are ebullient in their own way. “The soils are different,” she says. “Saint Préfert is stone and gravel. Colombis is sandy soil – very fine, very elegant.” Colombis is the only wine from Domaine Ferrando, and it is made from 60-year-old Grenache vines. Old vines provide concentration and power, meaning all winemakers want them if they can get them. To soften the tannins of Colombis, it’s made in oak vats, as opposed to the cement used for Saint Préfert. “The tannins of Colombis need to be made more silky and more round with the fermentation,” says the detail-oriented Ferrando. “And wood is perfect to obtain such a result.”
Her dedication makes for a memorable tasting experience. “I remember when I first tasted her wine,” says Jamie Ritchie, CEO and President of Sotheby’s Wine, Americas and Asia. “There’s a vibrancy and definition to the fruit flavours.”
For critics and consumers, much of the focus has been on two bottlings from Domaine Saint Préfert called Auguste Favier and Charles Giraud. “The Giraud has the most power, and power garners accolades,” says Ritchie. “But the Auguste Favier is my favourite, as it’s beautifully balanced.”
For Saint Préfert, Ferrando also makes a much smaller quantity of white wine – the production in the Rhône is weighted toward reds – made from the grapes Clairette and Roussanne. And her Cuvée Spéciale Vielles Clairettes is only produced in magnum, twice the size of a regular bottle, making it a delightful anomaly from the region.
David Gordon, the Rhône-loving wine director of the Tribeca Grill in New York, has many of Ferrando’s bottlings on his list. “I’ve worked with her since her first vintage of Saint Préfert, in 2003,” he says. “I was blown away by the wine. It has a powerful style, ripe and full-bodied, with some earthiness, too.”
As it happens, 2003 was a famously hot year, which baffled winemakers all over Europe. “I didn’t know how difficult it would be,” says Ferrando – and her knack for common sense solutions during that time was, she feels, the key to excelling at her adopted career. “I think it’s necessary to follow the unconscious,” she says. “You don’t have to know what’s going to happen to you. You just do it.”
And that fearlessness carried her through to her next big step, establishing Domaine Ferrando in 2004, something with her name on the label. Saint Préfert was, to Ferrando, a project she was doing with her husband and daughter. This was something else entirely. “I decided to create an estate with my own name, because I am a feminist,” she says. “I wanted to do something by myself.”
Still, Ferrando was smart enough to know that she did not know everything, and she sought counsel from some very talented people close by in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. One winemaker in particular was key to her development: the great Henri Bonneau, for whom Ferrando apprenticed. Bonneau is known for a terroir-driven, non-interventionist approach – and for keeping a low profile despite critical raves for his wines. “You don’t have a lot of people say, ‘Oh yeah, Henri Bonneau taught me wine,’” says Gordon of the Tribeca Grill.
Ferrando still takes other opinions seriously. Her domaines have been certified organic for two years, and she is considering whether to take the even more involved step of following rigorous biodynamic practices – but only if her eight regular employees are on board. “I’m waiting for my team to accept this challenge,” she says. “It’s a different way to think and work.”
But she intends to remain a boutique label to keep quality high. Colombis, for instance, will be doubling its production in the 2014 vintage, but that still only means a tiny 800 cases. “I don’t want to be bigger at this point,” insists Ferrando.
Finding equilibrium seems to be this winemaker’s specialty – as with Colombis, a wine with sixteen per cent alcohol that somehow retains its elegance. “It’s well-balanced,” says Ferrando, who could be talking about her whole operation. “Balance is the goal for any true winemaker.”
Ted Loos, a former editor at Wine Spectator, has written extensively on the pleasures of the grape for Bon Appetit, Epicurious and Departures.
SAINT PRÉFERT AT SOTHEBY'S WINE
Sotheby’s Wine offers a range of Isabel Ferrando’s wines – from the 2013 Côtes du Rhône to magnums of the 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape – all available for immediate purchase at our retail shop in New York and online at sothebyswine.com.
Visit sothebyswine.com to buy retail or sothebys.com/wine to learn more about upcoming auctions in London, New York and Hong Kong.