If Henri Bonneau’s wines are the apotheosis of traditional Châteauneuf du Pape, then Château Rayas is something altogether more singular. While Bonneau’s domaine is blessed with fine parcels in some of the appellation’s most celebrated terroirs, it is his idiosyncratically traditional cellar work that makes his bottlings so special. The soul of Château Rayas, by contrast, resides not in the cellar but in its vineyards. Though a mere fifteen-minute drive from the village of Châteauneuf du Pape, Rayas feels a world away, secluded amidst acres of cool coniferous woodland in the north-east of the appellation; an oasis of flora and fauna in a region devoted more and more exclusively to the cultivation of the vine. Here there are none of the famous galets roulés, the large cobbles that pave the plateau of Le Crau: instead the vines are rooted in a topsoil of fine sand and silt; underneath is a permeable layer of friable sandstone (safre in local parlance), then water-retentive clay.
The Rayas vineyard itself is composed of three distinct lieux-dits: Le Levant, Le Coeur and Le Couchant, which straddle a small valley and catch respectively the rising, midday and setting sun. These lieux-dits are planted exclusively to Grenache, which here expresses itself with remarkable aromatic amplitude, bursting with aromas of cherry, wild strawberry, raspberry and kirsch, complemented by the inevitable garrigue, balsam and spice of the south. Sometimes comparisons with the great crus of Burgundy come to mind, but Rayas really deserves an appellation entirely to itself.
Of course, for all the magic of the vineyards, there is an important human story here too, which began when Albert Reynaud, a retired notary, purchased the estate in 1880. But it was, by all accounts, his son Louis who really created Château Rayas as we know it, replacing woodland and fruit trees with Grenache vines. Louis, a strong personality, was at the helm from the early 1920s until his death in 1978, and famously defied the authorities for years by designating his wine as ‘1er Grand Cru’, a classification of his own invention. On Louis’ death, his reclusive son Jacques, no less eccentric than his father, succeeded him; and when Jacques passed away suddenly in 1997, the estate passed to his nephew Emmanuel.
Emmanuel inherited vineyards in need of much attention. In his old age, Jacques had neglected to replace dead vines, so an extensive programme of replanting was required. Unsurprisingly, the style of Rayas altered: the immense concentration of Jacques’ wines, born of punishingly low yields from a depleted vineyard, has given way to something more liquered and less structured, missing some of the savoury depth of older vintages. Time will tell whether that shift is a function of Emmanuel’s tastes or if increasing vine age will reverse it; in the meantime, the Rayas signature—that hauntingly ethereal perfume—at any rate remains the same, transporting us to one of France’s most magical terroirs.