Some wineries are famous. Some are infamous. And some are legendary. Château Rayas sits comfortably between the latter two: equally enigmatic and revered.
People don’t speak of visiting the place as much as making a pilgrimage, and the stories of such visits often take on an air of the fantastic as well as the absurd. The reclusive and eccentric owner from 1978 to 1997, Jacques Reynaud, on various occasions would hide from visitors, or simply walk them around for a while and bid them adieu without offering them a drop of wine to taste.
When Reynaud left the estate in 1997, he had no heirs, and its control passed to his nephew Emmanuel Reynaud, who has run the property since then, with few changes to anything. While Emmanuel Reynaud bears little of the misanthropic streak that made his uncle notorious, eccentricity does seem to run in the Reynaud blood, and appointments at Rayas remain quite hard to come by.
As I drove down the pot-holed dirt track that led to the estate, my companion, a representative from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Federation all but warned me that this visit might not go as planned. But as the estate hove into view, the sun broke through the rain clouds, and Mont Ventoux emerged from a fog dusted in snow, a pair of sights portentous enough to read as a good omen to even the most skeptical observer.
Mr. Emmanuel Reynaud, my companion remarked in amazement a few minutes later, turned out to be in an exceptionally good mood.
The history of Château Rayas goes back four generations to Albert Reynaud who, upon going deaf in 1880 at the young age of 45, decided to purchase some land and make his living growing grapes, a pursuit for which he felt some affinity and seemed to require little in the way of hearing. Reynaud’s son Louis took over the estate in 1920, having completed an Agriculture degree, and began bottling wine with the estate’s name on it, Rayas being the name of the forest occupying their parcel of the northeastern Châteauneuf-du-Pape plateau known as Pignan.
Louis Reynaud purchased two additional properties at some remove from the Rayas estate, Domaine des Tours in nearby Sarrian, and Château de Fonsalette in Lagarde-Paréol, about 20 miles to the north. Reynaud made the wines that launched the estate’s legendary status, and by the time of his death in 1978, Château Rayas had undeniably achieved the status of “Grand Cru” a self-declared label that many saw at first as hubris.
Reynaud left Rayas and Fonsalette to his younger son Jacques, and left Domain des Tours to his older son Bertrand, only to have the three properties united again under the same roof when Betrand’s son Emmanuel Reynaud took over in 1997. Between 1978 and 1997, Jacques continued to make extraordinary wines, that, thanks to his aversion to the public, only grew in mystique and rarity.
Having worked with his uncle for years, Emmanuel Reynaud changed little when he arrived, with one exception. Where his uncle had been content to ferment grapes from the estate’s different parcels together, Reynaud immediately began harvesting, fermenting, and aging the estate’s different vineyards separately.
“Rayas is a mystery,” says Emmanuel Reynaud earnestly, gesturing to his forest-rimmed vineyards as we walk away from the gravel parking lot in front of the nondescript winery, “it is a world apart.”
Reynaud is a compact, animated man, with a charming smile, a purposeful stride, and a glimmer in his eye. Emphatic, even forceful in his opinions at times, he seems quite at home in his own skin, and in the time I spent with him, seemed to offer no hint of reticence. On the contrary, he seemed quite delighted to spend the morning tromping around his property with a random American who spoke particularly lousy French.
Covering just shy of 30 acres, Rayas does indeed sit apart from much of Châteauneuf-du-Pape thanks to several unique aspects, the first of which are nearly 100 acres of woods that surround and separate the vineyard plots. Combined with the estate’s almost exclusively north-facing aspect, the forest’s shade and natural breezeways help ensure much lower temperatures in almost all the vineyards, invariably resulting in Rayas being the last estate to harvest in the appellation, but often at lower levels of potential alcohol than elsewhere.
“If it is too cold in August,” says Reynaud, “we have a hard time getting the fruit ripe.”
The estate’s vineyards are also distinguished by their soils, which are almost exclusively the velvety, airy sand known locally as sable. Quite remarkable in its softness, this soil possesses an airy lack of density that makes it feel quite spongy underfoot and quite velvety in the hand. This sand varies in depth between three and twelve feet and sits directly on top of what locals call safre, a fossil-ridden sandy limestone.
Because of the lack of any subsoil, not to mention much organic matter, these soils cannot support a high degree of vine density. The gnarled old head-trained Grenache vines that elsewhere in Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be planted as closely as one meter apart here must be placed in a two meter by two meter grid.
Winemakers widely acknowledge that these sands somehow don’t support the kind of longevity in vines that some of the other soils of the region do. When I ask Reynaud about this, he shrugs, and says, “We replace the dead vines every five years. A mix of ages gives complexity to the wine. It’s like a family. The important thing is to replace gradually.”
Replanting at the estate is done through a strict selection massale (mix of cuttings) from the best vineyard parcels, utilizing plant material that can be traced back to the first plantings on the estate.
“My uncle bought Grenache vines from a nursery once, but that was a mistake,” admits Reynaud.
A combination of dry-farming, vine age, the infertility of the estate’s soils, and a wanton disinterest in anything but the finest fruit results in yields that are all but microscopic: an average of 200 grams of fruit per vine, compared to a fairly standard kilogram for many other producers in the area.
These sandy soils yield wines of remarkable finesse and aromatics. Only a few producers in the region have the majority of their plantings on sand, but those wines tend to be much more floral and herbal than wines made from the more famous stony soils of the area.
The sun continued to shine as we wandered through the vineyards following the rain, mist rising magically from some shady corners as they were struck by the storm light.
Our walk through the woods and vineyards concluded, we returned to the cellars to taste. When one tastes at Rayas, one tastes only barrel samples. During my visit, the only bottles visible anywhere were a set of old soldiers absentmindedly decorating a dusty shelf in the primitive offices that front the even more primitive cellar.
Château Rayas produces three wines under its estate label, a reserve red (100% Grenache) and white (Grenache Blanc and Clairette) Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and a less expensive Châteauneuf-du-Pape named Pignan, which is also 100% Grenache. Reynaud also produces two reds and a white Côtes du Rhône under the Château de Fonsalette label which are made at Rayas.
The cellars at Rayas, perhaps not surprisingly, resemble many of the most exceptional wine cellars in which I have had the pleasure of tasting. Which is to say that they would give most hygiene-focused, technically trained winemakers nightmares. While Rayas may have been the first estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to use a pneumatic press for its grapes, its reputation for innovation stopped with that singular achievement. Since then, very little has changed in the cellar. Barrels average 70 years of age, but might as well be 200, so well do they blend into the mold-encrusted walls. The dim light available from the few overhead bulbs adds to an air of decrepitude.
Reynaud prefers to use primarily demi-muid barrels, which, at 600 liters of capacity, are more than twice as big as the more common barriques that Bordeaux made popular. Once in a great while, when he is in the market for another barrel, Reynaud tries to buy demi-muids that are at least 10 years old, and then uses them at his Château des Tours property for another 7 to 10 years before bringing them to Rayas, where they can begin to acquire the patina that pervades the cellar.
But from under this ancient blanket of detritus, what astonishment emerges.
Winemaking at Rayas remains disarmingly simple. The grapes are harvested by hand, carefully destemmed, and ferment in steel tanks with ambient yeasts. The wine gets transferred to barrels, where it undergoes its secondary malolactic fermentation, and then sits for a while before being racked once, and then bottled.
Our barrel tasting focused almost entirely on the 2012 vintage, which as I have already related, rates as nothing short of phenomenal in my book. None of the red wines we tasted were final blends, only components of blends, while the whites were in their final form save some additional aging in the barrel and bottle.
Here are my thoughts on these unformed creatures, a future taste of which I pray for daily.
2013 Château Rayas “Château Fonsalette – Barrel Sample” Côtes du Rhône Blanc Reserve, France
Light gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of pears, apples, and wet stones. In the mouth bright apple and pear flavors are shot through with lemon and chamomile and dance juicily over a bed of wet stone minerality. Great acidity, nice finish. A blend of 2% Clairette, 2% Roussanne, 91% Grenache Blanc, and 5% Marsanne. The 2013 vintage yields were terrible, resulting in only 2 barrels of this wine being produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2013 Château Rayas Blanc Barrel Sample, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
Light blonde in color, this barrel sample smells of wet stones, lemon pith, and white flowers. In the mouth a floral tea quality mixes with chamomile, lemon zest, bee pollen and flowers over a bed of deep, alpine-river-water minerality. The pithy, chalky quality lingers in the finish beautifully, along with mouthwatering acidity. A blend of 50% Grenache Blanc and 50% Clairette. Fermented for 10 months before finishing. Only two barrels produced. Score: around 9.5.
2012 Château Rayas “Château Fonsalette – Barrel Sample” Côtes du Rhône Blanc Reserve, France
Light blonde in color, this barrel sample smells of poached pears, cold cream, and ranier cherries. In the mouth the wine has quite a beautiful texture, silk and satin delivering flavors of pears, wet stones, and exotic citrus flavors through an exceptionally long finish. Outstanding acid balance. 8% Clairette, 5% Marsanne, and 87% Grenache Blanc. Score: around 9.5.
2012 Château Rayas “Château Fonsalette – Barrel Sample” Cinsault, Côtes du Rhône, France
Light garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells beautifully of garrigue mixed with bright forest berries and wet stones. In the mouth, stunningly lean and stony flavors of raspberry, strawberry, and exotic flowers mix with a deep mineral undertone. Floral notes linger in the finish. Very faint tannins and bright, juicy acidity.. This will comprise 35% of the final blend this year. Score: around 9.5.
2012 Château Rayas “Château Fonsalette – Barrel Sample 1” Grenache, Côtes du Rhône, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of exotic fresh herbs, flowers, and a sappy gorgeous mash of freshly plucked forest berries. In the mouth bright strawberry and raspberry fruit flavors are tinged with fresh green herbs, floral perfume, and wonderfully deep stony minerality. The wine possesses incredible depth and length, with faint tannins. The finish is exquisite, and the acidity phenomenal. This particular barrel sample is made from a set of younger vines grafted onto American rootstock. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2012 Château Rayas “Château Fonsalette – Barrel Sample 2” Grenache, Côtes du Rhône, France
Light garnet in the glass, this barrel sample has an unbelievably floral nose, with exotic perfumes wafting in the glass along with sweet forest berries and fresh herbs. In the mouth the wine, which is made from a selection massale of old vines, has a deeper minerality than its younger sibling and much finer grained tannins. Phenomenally textured and gorgeously balanced between juicy bright strawberry and raspberry fruit and the deep mineral and forest floor notes that give the wine depth and poise. A knockout. Score: around 10.
2012 Château Rayas “Pignan – Barrel Sample” Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
Pale garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of cedar and exotic fresh herbs, strawberry and spice. In the mouth spicy strawberry fruit bursts with fresh acidity and a deep stony minerality. Tangy and juicy, the wine kicks taste buds and saliva glands into overdrive, as cedar and the faintest of tannins linger in the finish. Outstanding. Made from the sandy vineyard at the heart of the Pignan lieu-dit that sits at the top of the hill and faces north towards the Ventoux. Score: around 9.5.
2012 Château Rayas “Le Coeur – Barrel Sample” Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
Light garnet in color, this barrel sample has a tangy nose of brightly spiced strawberry fruit and an ethereal perfume of flowers wafting in the forest breeze. in the mouth the wine is nothing short of sensational, with a pitch perfect crystalline minerality that offers a magnifying lens to gorgeous strawberry, raspberry, and mulberry fruit that possesses an incredible aromatic sweetness on the palate and a remarkable juiciness thanks to outstanding acidity. Phenomenally supple, fine grained tannins add complexity and structure to what is undoubtedly the single best mouthful of Grenache I have ever had in my life. Kill me now. Made from the vineyard that sits at the center of the estate, just behind the winery. Score: around 10.
2012 Château Rayas “Sunset – Barrel Sample” Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
Pale garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of wet tree bark, wet stones and lean bright forest berry fruit. In the mouth the wine has a remarkable transparency, as if its lean fruit flavors with a hint of spice are being viewed through a crystalline pane. Notes of strawberry and cedar mix with herbal and mineral undertones as they linger through a stunning finish. Remarkable. Made from the vineyard that Reynaud calls his “sunset” vineyard, the most western oriented vineyard that receives the last light of the day. Score: around 9.5.
2012 Château Rayas “Levain – Barrel Sample” Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
Light garnet in color, this barrel sample has a slightly animal aspect to it, with floral notes of forest berries and wet stones sweeping in over the hint of funk. In the mouth gorgeous minerality surrounds pure strawberry fruit that is dusted with sandpapery tannins. Nice finish. This barrel has not yet been racked. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2012 Château Rayas “Château Fonsalette – Barrel Sample” Syrah, Côtes du Rhône, France
Medium garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of spicy, peppery cassis. In the mouth beautiful blackberry and spicy, peppery flavors mix with deeper blueberry and wet dirt flavors. Powdery tannins dust the mouth as the lean fruit takes on a mineral note in the finish. This will comprise 15% of the final blend. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
And just like that, we emerged from the cellar, back into the daylight. It felt like waking from a dream. A dream I hope to revisit again at some point in my life.
Those interested in purchasing the wines of Chateau Rayas can find them online, in small quantities, for rather exorbitant prices. In my somewhat limited experience, they are worth every penny, provided they have been stored well.