Chateau Rayas is without a doubt one of the great legends of the wine world. Hardly any lover of powerful red wines does not have this name on his wish list. However, for most of them, the opportunity to taste this myth for themselves will unfortunately always remain a pipe dream. And this is not only due to the prices that are now charged for a bottle of Chateau Rayas, but mainly due to the extremely limited opportunities to get hold of one at all.
About ten to twenty thousand bottles of first wine are produced at Chateau Rayas every year, in addition, depending on the vintage, there are up to 12000 bottles of second wine, which is called Pignan, as well as a maximum of 4000 bottles of Rayas blanc, which is extremely controversial in its quality. Against the background of a fan community spread all over the world, these quantities are almost negligible.
Moreover, for the longest time, nobody could just show up at the estate and put a few bottles of Rayas in the trunk of his car. Most of the visitors, no matter if they were buyers, journalists or private persons, were not allowed to enter the inconspicuous building some kilometers northeast of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Even after making an appointment by telephone, one could by no means be sure that someone would open the door for one. Especially Jaques Reynaud, who died in 1997, was known to let appointments be appointments.
But even on the price lists of the few traders who purchase Chateau Rayas directly, you will rarely find the wines. Mostly, the few bottles are distributed to loyal regular customers. Only the Pignan and the excellent drops of the Chateau de Fonsalette, which also belongs to the Reynaud family, are listed more frequently, but after Jaques Reynaud's death, the demand for these wines seems to have even increased.
The secret of the quality of Chateau Raya's Chateauneuf-du-Pape is not really clear among experts. What is unique about them is that they consist of one hundred percent Grenache in every case, which could at least explain their often silky texture, reminiscent of Burgundy, despite all their power. Another feature is the slightly northward sloping, sandy soils from which the heat-storing "galets roules", fist- to head-sized pebbles for which Chateauneuf-du-Pape is famous, have been almost completely removed. These circumstances lead to a slightly delayed ripening compared to many other terroirs in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and thus to a somewhat longer vegetation period, which might well be partly responsible for the enormous complexity and depth of taste of the best Chateau Rayas. Of particular importance are without a doubt the old vines and the yield, which hardly ever exceeds 20 hectoliters per hectare here - for the entire harvest! The part flowing into the first wine is usually considerably lower.
Modern equipment or even technology is not to be found in the cellars of Chateau Rayas. Only for the white wine there is some stainless steel, the rest are old wooden barrels. Here, the wines from the different parcels of the Le Rayas and Pignan vineyards are vinified separately. Before bottling, the quality of the individual lots finally decides what goes into the first wine and what into the Pignan, no matter which vineyard they come from. Thereby, considerable demands are still made on the Pignan, which is therefore sometimes hardly inferior to its big brother and can still be counted among the finest Chateauneuf-du-Pape when considered on its own.
Today, the responsibility for Chateau Rayas is in the hands of Jaques Reynaud's nephew Emmanuel, who had already become famous with his Chateau des Tours in Vaqueyras before taking over the estate. With Rayas, Emmanuel Reynaud also took over the Cotes-du-Rhone estate Chateau de Fonsalette from his uncle. Here, a Cotes-du-Rhone rouge out of Grenache, Cinsaut and Syrah, a Fonsalette Syrah, which is always impressive and also very sought-after, as well as a Cotes-du-Rhone blanc out of Grenache blanc, Marsanne and Clairette are produced.
The tasting of 13 vintages has also shown in comparison with other samples that many Rayas obviously go through several ups and downs over time in the bottle, but never show themselves from a really repellent side and are always to be drunk with pleasure. At the same time, the wines reveal an excellent aging potential for the appellation. Even a weak vintage can easily develop over 10 years and more and will remain in very good shape for at least 15 years. The better vintages are always good for 20 years of development, and in great exceptional vintages, the wines are likely to remain in top form for 30 years and longer.
Most impressive is the enormous quality level of Chateau Rayas. Even in difficult years like 1993 and 1994, excellent wines were produced here, which have far more substance, depth of flavour and complexity than most of their competitors. The biggest surprises for me were the fabulous 97 and above all the 92, whose concentration, fruit sweetness and incredible freshness thrilled me.
The 1990 and 1995 vintages turned out to be monumental - far less surprisingly. Both are certainly among the greatest Chateauneuf-du-Pape of all time. The 95 shows an unusual aroma for Rayas, because it is clearly blackberry, and the structure also seems to be harder and more pithy than usual. Here, the last word is far from being spoken. The same is true for the '99, which I believe can match the great vintages. Unfortunately, the '79 only gave an idea of the indescribable pleasure it would have offered a few years ago. However, the '83 offered a wonderful compensation for this. In the meantime, this dream wine pulled out all the stops and presented itself in a unique condition.
I have considerable doubts about the development potential of the '98 and the question of whether this wine really belongs to the great Rayas. I tend to say no. Although it has enormous dimensions and the usual beguiling aroma, the fruit seems to me to be very marked by overripeness and "heat", which in my opinion also has a clear effect on the structure. In addition, lactic notes indicate problems with lactic acid fermentation. Should this not have been a bad bottle, I fear an abrupt drop in quality in just a few years.
The tasting took place in the restaurant "Im Fünften" in the Steirerhof in Graz. The wines were decanted in series of three and served blind. The listing of the results follows by vintages and not by tasting order. Besides Rayas, some other top wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape as well as a Fonsalette were tasted. They are listed at the end.