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Friday, May 09, 2008

The Art of Fine Wine, Domaine St. Prefert

The purchase of Domaine St. Prefert in 2002 by Isabel Ferrando and her politically charged husband has been a godsend for those of us that thirst for compelling, seductive Chateauneuf du Pape. A banker by trade and artist by vocation, Isabel fashions some of the prettiest wines of the appellation that come from a rather hefty portion of Mourvedre (close to 40% in the Charles Giraud cuvee) in a preponderance of sandy soils among the domaine’s 15 plus hectares. While Philippe Cambie’s services certainly haven’t hurt the Domaine, Isabel’s competency as a top tier winemaker became immediately evident in the irregular 2003 vintage, as she handled one of the most difficult years of the 21st century w/ the finesse and grace of a veteran vigneron.

Her success with the Mouvedre grape seems a bit unheralded; perhaps because Beaucastel has the appellation’s key to its throne, but the immediate kinship she struck w/ Eric de St. Victor of Chateau Pibarnon during a trade tasting in New York speaks volumes for her focus on this variety. The sense of artistry and polish that extends itself from her paintings to her profound elixirs reminds me a bit of Cote Rotie star Rene Rostaing, whom takes a similar pleasure in chiseling untamed wines from monster mass to elegant masterpieces.

The first few vintages show admirable consistency across the board for each of her cuvees. The Colombis label was introduced in 2004, while the August Favier and Charles Giraud cuvees helped re-launch the St. Prefert domaine into stardom in 2003. There is also a classique base Chateauneuf and a white Chateauneuf that utilizes an extremely high proportion of Clairette, plumped up w/ a touch of new oak.

2007 Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc
The ’07 was just bottled, but showed extremely well (even better than the ’06), w/ exotic notes of honeysuckle, fresh fig, litchi, salted butter and warm brioche notes seeping from the glass. The palate still struck a fresh chord, with round, succulent flavors that wove an intense core alongside subtle mineral nuances. I absolutely love what she’s been able to do w/ her old vine Clairette, as the style is certainly exuberant, but when it is at its best it makes no apologies and is funnels all its energy into a seamless package, 93 points.

2006 Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc
While I’d tasted this wine on a couple other occasions, this showing was not as on point as it had been recently. The barrique notes were a bit disjointed, clipping the lemon verbena, mango and custard notes from exhibiting their full-bodied, powerful expression. I imagine a quick decant would have brought all the elements back into place. Tired of banal Chardonnay? Try some of Isabel’s Clairette, it will bring the weight and richness you’d hope for in fine Chardonnay, with more distinction and character coming along for the ride, 90+ points.

2006 Chateauneuf du Pape, Reserve August Favier
Isabel just bottled the ‘06 Charles Giraud and it was certain to show in irregular fashion, so we just dove into the August Favier cuvee, which is a textbook example of the vintage. Forward and lush, the showy nose is full of plum cake, black currant, warm ganache and spice notes. In the mouth, the wine shows immediate accessibility, rounded edges and a nice depth of flavor, as sun-baked fruit notes creep back in on the long finish, 92 points.

The 2007 barrel samples of the August Favier and Charles Giraud cuvees were not nearly as showy as most other domaine’s at this juncture. While they exhibited more tightly knit, closed characteristics, they were massive and dark in the mouth, with a gorgeous sense of refinement to tug of tannins in the mouth. The promise of this vintage appears to be real, and with the top producers, it is one that I’ll likely be buying across the board.

Older vintages:

St. Prefert Charles Giraud 2005Isabel’s juice always seems to be so pretty. Perhaps my opinion is a touch biased considering I know that there is a feminine touch behind these wines, but they truly are full of poetry, finesse and ballet around the sultry side of Grenache to a tune that Baryshnikov himself would take note of. Still subtle and a bit bashful aromatically, but pure treasures begin to unveil themselves from the satin cloak that is currently covering them. Fresh and scintillating in its perfumes of crushed rose petals, raspberry, kirsch, spicebox, black forest cake and crisp minerality that shudder their way through the palate effortlessly. I believe this is the most compelling vintage yet for St. Prefert’s flagship cuvee, as it manages to harness its substantial structure w/ a silky overlay of flesh that makes it deceptively approachable. This has the poetry of a pinot noir w/ the substance of old vine Grenache. Should develop quite well, 96+ points (easily outshines the August Favier in this particular vintage).

Domaine Saint Prefert, August Favier 2005Diving in a bit early on the Favier was not quite as rewarding as it was for the Charles Giraud. After 2-3 hours of decanting, the character of this young Chateauneuf du Pape began to slowly reveal itself. The deep ruby colored wine expressed sharp, sensual arrays of kirsch, ground cinnamon, sage and blackberry reduction sauce in the nose. Seemingly Burgundian in its finesse, offering up a succulent and juicy palate full of freshly ground pepper and dark fig cake flavors check in on the finish. I imagine a couple more years of bottle age will unveil a touch more nuance, additional depth and weight in the palate. Believe it or not, I like the 2004 better! 92 points.

Domaine Saint Prefert, August Favier 2004
The Favier cuvee is a bit more traditional blend of Chateauneuf du Pape, consisting of 80% Grenache, with Cinsault, Mourvedre and Syrah rounding out the remainder of the blend. The elevage is strictly in tank and foudre (unlike the Charles Giraud which uses a portion of small barrels). The perfumes of this vintage were so seductive and pure they nearly paralyzed me at the knees and put the hair on the back of my neck on edge. The delightful scents ran the gamut from violets, melted licorice, raspberry ganache, exotic nutmeg and sweet cardamom spices. In the mouth, the palate had an ethereal sensitivity that belied its stature, with subtle layers of flavor that enveloped an undercarriage of mineral definition, with meadow herbs checking in on the persistent finish, 94 points. Although these cuvees are relatively scarce, I still believe they are undervalued (and in the case of the 2004 vintage, under-rated) and should be gobbled up before the price catches up w/ the quality.

Isabel Ferrando, Colombis 2004 (consumed from a magnum)Isabel’s Colombis label, coming from sandy/clay soils in two separate parcels, is a worthy successor to her more widely known line from Domaine Saint Prefert. A full-throttle performance for the vintage that is saturated with fig, cassis, loamy sage, molten chocolate and graphite flavors that glide over the palate with velvety ease. While the structure is nearly concealed by the wine’s fleshy character, the tannins are formidable and should help preserve this well constructed red for well over a decade, 92 points.

2003 Domaine Saint Prefert Collecion Charles Giraud
While this vintage is certainly a polarizing one to the Chateauneuf faithful, this was the break-out year for Isabel Ferrando and her immediate success in such a year is almost uncanny. The wine is very deep in color and supremely endowed aromatically, chock full of raspberry ganache, fig and kirsch flavors that brew a seductive concoction of pure, heady delight. In the mouth, the wine is ultra-rich and plush, with a gorgeous intensity that exhibits a sense of feminine grace that enshrouds its muscularity. Additional nuances of garrigue and Valhrona chocolate sneak up on the finish, picking up more and more steam as the wine sits in the glass, 95 points.


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