The magic of Rayas

The late Jacques Reynaud of Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape was one of the wine world’s more reclusive, enigmatic and fabled producers. The wines he made before his untimely death in 1997 - while buying a pair of shoes no less - are legendary, and among the rarest of the rare. If you can find them, it’s unlikely that you can afford them. But once you’ve tasted these wines - especially Rayas; but also his other bottlings Fonsalette or even Pignan, you come to understand why Reynaud’s wines engender such adulation and critical acclaim.

A friend and I recently shared a bottle of the Chateau de Fonsalette Syrah 1994, one of the last wines made in the “Jacques era”…and it was nothing short of remarkable. Perfectly stored, the cork was pristine and so was the wine. The color was still somewhat fresh, with some carmine/purple at the rim and a deep crimson/black core. The aromatics showed much of what one would expect from southern Rhone syrah - dark reddish/black cane fruits, some garrigue mixed with that gamey, wild bird savoriness and a very slight bacon edge. But somehow, all of this was delivered up in a completely uncommon manner, with an impact that went far beyond what one would expect from those separate elements. 

There existed a measured and seamless elegance not usually associated with burly, ripe southern Rhone Syrah. The textures were dense without being heavy, and the intricate and mysterious aromatics gave the impression that the wine’s core was still waiting to be found somewhere in the dark crimson heart of the wine; a heart that invited you to delve deeper and deeper with each taste. As the intense and layered flavors of the mid-palate receded, fine tannins rose to the fore to further define the wine’s form and provided a lingering, gentle persistence that brought a gentle end to the reverie this wine magically wove.

Because it was lunchtime and we had other wines to taste, half the bottle was corked and left over until the next day. And remarkably, that last half of the bottle was even better than the first - not what you’d expect from a 35 year-old wine.

But that stunning syrah left more than a lovely, lingering and almost mystical finish. It left hanging the question of what makes a wine like this so exceptional and separates it from its peers - even those who share the same general real estate? If terroir is simply a French invention - as some New World winemakers have suggested - then how does one account for such singularity and distinctive vinous personality? Is it the winemaker, the vineyard, the age and particular genetics of the vines, the unique biological colony in the cuverie and surroundings or the inherited wisdom of generations who have labored over these same vines and in these same dusty cellars? 

Of course it’s probably all of the above along with something even more intangible. The secret must lie in how Jacques Reynaud brought all these things together in his own particular manner, and how his personality and character animated the raw materials to achieve his unique vision. Reynaud was among that rare handful of winemakers whose vocation and person is so closely intertwined that the wine becomes an extension of the winemaker, in much the same way that a good painting or piece of music is an interpretation of individual materials and influences brought together by with great skill to serve a particular vision of the creator - a numinous and even spiritual process not quantifiable or subject to any ”metric”. Immune to imitation, this is certainly a very high level of intuitive creativity in its purest form.

It took son Emmanuel a few years to feel his way forward after his father’s death before the wines again took on that Rayas glow. But for those of us lucky enough to have tasted the old man’s wines the “post Jaques” wines were never quite the same. 

Whenever one has a wine tasting experience like this, it strongly suggests that there’s something far more at work in great wine than the obvious raw materials and site. It also explains why this kind of authenticity can’t be reproduced, bought or captured by opportunists, copycats and corporate beverage entities who assume they can create greatness out of whole cloth and without any sort of cultural or historical context. Not to mention without the soul of a unique and gifted winemaker.

Wines like Rayas are a powerful reminder that truly great wine isn’t made in boardrooms or focus groups, but in moldy cellars and in tiny villages in rolling hills down crooked roads, often by the unlikeliest of people; who still buy their shoes in the local village - and sometimes die while doing so.

Tasting Notes: 1978 Chateauneuf du Pape

The 1978 vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape is considered epic - the first of the “modern” great vintages that brought this old southern French appellation to the attention of a new generation of wine lovers.

I recently had the good fortune to taste a couple of the more noteworthy bottles from this great vintage; an experience that filled in some holes in my tasting experience and lent some perspective to the just released 2016s. Given their similarities, comparisons between these two vintages are inevitable, so tasting the ‘78s may offer insights into the future of the 2016s for those of you in the market. I won’t get into vintage details here - you can do that yourself easily enough. Suffice to say that a long and relatively cool, but even-tempered growing season was the common thread in both vintages.

Of course with just 3 wines it’s difficult to make any sweeping generalizations. But I’m sure that for many, the idea that these wines can not only live for 40 years, but evolve beautifully over so many decades is a wonder in itself. 

The 1978 Domaine de Pegau Cuvee Reservee was the first wine up and it proved to be the most intriguing and revelatory. Many old school writers and wine critics have written of the similarity between well-aged Chateauneuf and Burgundy, but I had never seen this tendency so perfectly illustrated as it was with this wine. 

And although it had been standing up for weeks it was still quite cloudy. In spite of this it remained a healthy - if faded - deep rose madder hue, with very little brickish/amber at the rim. Medium in weight, the ethereal aromatics of old black tea leaves, dried rose petal, faded sandalwood, and subtle raspberry flower suggested the inside of a potpourri-scented hankie drawer in your grandmother’s dresser.  

The textures were creamy and fine with no hint of grit from the still in solution, unfiltered sediments. As sometimes happens with older wines that have spent years cooped-up in a bottle, the nose only grew in intensity as the wine breathed. In fact it held together so well that it made a profound impression on tasters who purchased a taste as a SuperPour many hours later. They couldn’t put it down - their noses returning again and again to their glasses as it continued to offer new surprises. 

A couple of weeks later, my friend who had provided the wines and I returned to our favorite spot for our monthly tasting lunch and opened the Chateau Fortia 1978. At first the wine seemed sound but as it aired in the glass a tell-tale vein of tca could be discerned - if ever so slightly - buried underneath some pretty charming dark berry fruit and spice aromatics. Too bad - but maybe the waiters to whom we gave it were able to enjoy it in spite of the flaw. I certainly hope so.

The back-up bottle that day was the Vieux Telegraphe 1978, a legendary wine that certainly lived up to it’s lofty reputation. The cork was nearly perfect and the wine was more than sound - it was full-throttle with all the dark intensity that VT is known for. Still dark ruby / garnet with an almost blackish/purple center, experienced tasters would be hard-put to accurately date this wine if tasted blind. It seemed far younger than it’s 40 years and it held up remarkably well into the next day, showering the palate with copious dark blue and black cane fruits, hints of mocha and savory / meaty notes - all richly textured and with fine length. 

A limited tasting yes, but one that served to highlight the differences between three venerable properties that should be enough to encourage anyone to lay some 2016s down for even a few years if they are going to turn out as lovely as these bottles. 

And while I appreciated greatly the power and depth of the Vieux Telegraphe and realize why it has so many fans, my admiration and intrigue was captured by the exquisite Pegau. But then anything that reminds me of Burgundy already has a head start in my tasting book.