It is notoriously difficult to make an appointment to visit Chateau Rayas. Past proprietors were famous for failing to make appointments, even with their own distributors, or for hiding when visitors came. Emmanuel Reynaud is not quite so reticent, but all the same he likes to group his visitors, so that they do not distract too much from the serious business of producing Rayas.
Given this history I was surprised and pleased to be able to make an appointment to visit Rayas as part of the research for my next book, and I made sure to arrive in good time. Rayas is not the easiest place to find, with a somewhat obscure dirt track entrance around the side of Chateau Valdieu. The “chateau” is a utilitarian building appearing like a warehouse on a small hill. When I arrived, M. Reynaud emerged to say that he would be ready shortly. Slowly the other members of the 4 p.m. tour arrived. This turned out to be one of the most curiously composed visits I have made to a winery. Given the reputation of Rayas, and the difficulty of making an appointment, I expected a very serious group of professionals. But one couple turned out to have no interest other than to purchase a few bottles of wine: everything was delayed while they accomplished this, and then they left.
A diminished group, we set out to explore the terroir. M. Reynaud explained that Rayas has several individual vineyards, each surrounded by the local forest. Next to the chateau is the “Coeur” vineyard. The terroir is sandy and a slight elevation relative to the surrounding countryside ensures breezes that give freshness. The other major plots are the Couchant (to the west) and the Levant (to the east). All the plantings are Grenache. A little to the north is the Pignan area, used to produce the second wine. The vines date back about 70 years, and are replaced individually as necessary; there is never any wholesale replanting. M. Reynaud is not especially forthcoming about his techniques, so I was not really able to establish his opinion on how these features contribute to Rayas’s ability to retain freshness so well.
One of our party was amazed by the concept that the vines were grafted: this led to much discussion about French vines and American rootstocks. When we had all that straight, we went inside for a tasting of barrel samples from Fonsalette (the Cotes du Rhône made by Rayas), Pignan (really more a wine from the northern terroir than a second wine made by declassifying Rayas), and the individual terroirs of Rayas. The emphasis here is on the reds, but there are also whites, including the white Châteauneuf that can be very good, with a savory representation of the garrigue that is quite remarkable considering its constitution from an equal blend of Grenache Blanc and Clairette.
The building lived up to expectation, or at least to its reputation for dilapidation. It’s an old two story construction, with a roof that was recently replaced. Several rough holes have been knocked in the concrete floor that separates the two storeys, presumably to allow pipes to be run through. Aside from the fermentation cuves, everything is old wood, very old wood in fact, in various sizes from barriques or tonneaux to larger containers. I asked M. Reynaud if he ever uses any new oak. “Why would I want to do that,” he said with a look of amazement. “I make wine,” he added as a further explanation. “It’s for the Americans, the new oak.”
But the quality of the barrel samples (all from the 2012 vintage) spoke for itself. The most interesting was a comparison between the three main Rayas vineyards. The Coeur was silky with much finesse, refined and sophisticated rather than fleshy. Le Couchant was warmer and nuttier (more typically Grenache, you might say), in a similar style to Coeur, but rounder, richer, with a faint sweet impression on finish. Le Levant offered a sterner quality to the nose than you usually see in Rayas itself, rich again, but with a strong sense of underlying terroir: I felt this might provide the backbone for the blend. I could see these components of the blend combining to offer freshness, fruits, and structure, but the whole is undoubtedly greater than the sum of the parts in the magic that is Rayas.