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.