Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a long history, becoming the new home for the Pope in the 14th century, but its prestige as a wine region is comparatively short. Although it is France’s oldest appellation (the first to be officially classified in 1923), the wines only really gained notoriety in the second half of the 20th century. More recently, its full-bodied, fruity style found appeal among American critics – namely Robert Parker, who helped increase its following across the Atlantic. But, despite the success of estates such as Château Rayas, there is little fanfare around the region.
Isabel Ferrando’s dynamism, therefore, is a refreshing change. Her story is one of revolution rather than evolution. With every step in her career, she has made bold decisions – decisions that have brought significant attention, praise and a legion of fans. For her, such an approach aligns neatly with the philosophy of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “The only limit is to respect the appellation. That is the only limit,” says Ferrando. With 13 permitted varieties (or 22 if you count both white and red grapes) and five very different, distinct soils, countless expressions of the appellation are possible – and, for her, this is why it’s a very modern appellation. Everyone is given the freedom to “paint their picture”.
Although the region might be famous for its galets roulés (large round pebbles that reflect heat and add to ripeness), this is just one of its terroirs. “There are five different soils in Châteauneuf – chalk, limestone, clay, sand, galet stones that each have a strong influence on the appellation,” she explains. “There is one singularity,” she admits, “and that is a lot of fruit.” She feels that Châteauneuf is united by its “fruity but serious” profile – however, beyond that, there is incredible variety – from more floral to darker, more savory styles.
“The vines on clay produce a fatness in the wine. The sandy soils bring a silky texture and tenderness to the tannins. The chalk gives a sensation of powder,” she says, highlighting how each soil type contributes to the final wine – providing a palette for any winemaker to produce a wine that fits their sensibility.
This freedom made the region a perfect fit for Ferrando – who decided to give up her job in banking to become a winemaker 20 years ago. Then a new mother, she initially thought that being her own boss would allow her to spend more time with her family. That didn’t actually happen, she admits, “But when you become a mother or father, you become someone else – you look at life differently. I wanted to go back to nature,” she says. “I didn’t want to raise my daughter in a city. I was born in the countryside, and I needed that for my daughter.”
After training for a year in Gigondas under Dominique Ay (at Domaine Raspail-Ay), she found a domaine for sale in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and jumped at the opportunity. She might have been new to the region, a woman in a male-dominated industry with no background in winemaking, but that wasn’t going to put her off. Fortunately, she made some good friends – most notably the late legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer Henri Bonneau who was instrumental in the establishment of Domaine Saint-Préfert.
When she arrived, the vineyards were not in good shape, with many vines diseased and in need of replanting. Traditionally, producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend plots together to capture the complexities of the different soils and varieties etc. But, if she was to make a wine of quality, this was not possible for Ferrando. So she identified the best plots and bottled those separately (as her Réserve Auguste Favier and Collection Charles Giraud cuvées), while she set about replanting the rest of the vineyards. The young fruit from her new vines was dedicated to her Cuvée Classique Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Single-vineyard bottlings were quite a radical move in the appellation – but such was the quality of these low-production, old-vine bottlings that Ferrando’s wines rapidly earned recognition. She went further to challenge convention in the region, crafting three varietal wines in a region that was built on blends.
These cuvées – a Clairette (Cuvée Spéciale Vieilles Clairettes), Cinsault (Cuvée F601) and Grenache (Cuvée Colombis) bottling – are remarkable wines. There is no other 100% Cinsault produced in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.“The Cinsault is absolutely perfect in Saint-Préfert,”, says Ferrando. “Nowhere else in Châteauneuf-du-Pape do you get these floral aromas.” She describes the grape as the Pinot Noir of the Rhône. Production is tiny – limited to just 800 bottles a year – and it is not cheap at about $600 a bottle. But, for those lucky enough to taste it, it is beguiling. The Wine Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski rated it as his top discovery of 2020.
Her 100% Clairette is another oddity for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and almost as rare. Only bottled in magnums (800 a year) – this is a wine that Ferrando believes can age 50 years or more. “Clairette is my vision of white wine in the Southern Rhône.” She wants to counter the claim that white Châteauneuf-du-Pape is fat and fruity. “With Clairette, you can produce very fresh and deep wines,” she says, “it gives a lot of freshness, tension and salinity to the whites.” The wine was inspired by her mentor Henri Bonneau, who convinced Ferrando to bottle these 80-year-old vines separately. In the early days of Saint-Préfert, Ferrando invited Bonneau to a feast of tête de veau – and Bonneau arrived with a magnum of an unlabelled white wine. During the meal, Bonneau started to cry – he told Ferrando that the wine was the last bottle from the cellar made by his father – a 1947 100% Clairette – showing how well good Clairette could age. “It was a very special moment,” notes Ferrando. The wine was incredibly fresh and in perfect condition. He asked Ferrando again to create another 100% Clairette – like his father’s.
The first vintage was 2009. Once the wine was picked and fermented, Bonneau would come to the winery, taste the wine and insist she not bottle the wine yet. It was not ready. “It was risky,” says Ferrando, “but he insisted.” After 18 months she could hold off no longer and bottled it. Tasting the wine, she was amazed by its tension. It was special. The first magnum of every vintage was given to Bonneau as a thank you.
After 20 years in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Ferrando is one of the appellation’s brightest stars. But she hasn’t stopped challenging the status quo. After building one of the most celebrated brands in the appellation, Ferrando overhauled her range in 2020 – discontinuing many wines and changing the estate’s name to Famille Isabel Ferrando. Few people would have the guts to take such a chance, but a meditative period over Covid-19, the death of her husband and the evolution of her vineyards all prompted her next radical change. “The resistance of people to change is apparent, it is comfortable to stay the same,” she admits. But, for Ferrando, she had to change.
Over 20 years, she’d nurtured her vineyards back to health, her young vines had reached maturity and her biodynamic farming had brought biodiversity back into her vineyards. “The vineyards changed and so the wines had to change too,” she explains. Ferrando now had the quality of fruit to be able to produce a single, flagship Châteauneuf-du-Pape cuvée – a wine that represented her terroir and her winemaking style. While she still produces her Vieilles Clairettes, F601 Cinsault and Colombis cuvées, she has sacrificed her top-scoring Auguste Favier and Charles Giraud reds to produce what she feels is a true representation of her estate and sensibility. The wine captures her obsession with freshness, balanced with concentration – playing with the different textural qualities of her soils and varieties. With this refreshed focus from the 2020 vintage, Ferrando decided to bottle the wines under Famille Isabel Ferrando – trusting that her customers will follow the wines under this new name.
Ferrando’s daughter seems to have inherited her mother’s revolutionary approach. At 22, she decided to abandon her business studies to tackle a degree in viticulture in Beaune – to the complete shock of her mother. While currently her daughter is learning about winemaking at some of the best estates around the world (including at the likes of Domaine Roulot, Eisele Vineyard, Mullineux and more), she has already had an influence at Saint-Préfert. It was under her guidance that Ferrando hired a young agronomist engineer who has been planting trees and cereal crops in the vineyards to improve biodiversity. Ferrando is clearly excited– still spurred on by change, despite her success.
Tasting the new wines from Famille Isabel Ferrando is a wonderful experience. We were among the first to taste the 2021 vintage. The white Châteauneuf-du-Pape is divine – offering such beautiful freshness, salinity and depth, with a finesse that I can’t remember tasting from the region. And the reds, even at such a young age, already taste so balanced, pure and refined. Ferrando might be a radical and modern vigneron, but her wines are timeless.