March 1, 2013 7:38 pm

Château-not-so-neuf

The greatest shock is how pure and fresh the wines are that come out of Rayas’ dusty, cobwebby containers
An illustration by Ingram Pinn of a sign pointing to Caves du Château Rayas.©Ingram Pinn

One of my favourite wine trade stories is about Simon Loftus, who used to run Adnams of Southwold, the brewer, hotelier and wine merchants. In the prose accompanying one of his particularly beautiful wine lists he recounted how in 1979 he tried to visit Louis Reynaud, the idiosyncratic owner of the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape property Château Rayas. This was long before the era of email, and probably even predated the fax that Reynaud would never have used anyway. Loftus sent him a series of letters asking for an appointment and received no reply. In the end he wrote to Reynaud stating firmly the time and date of his arrival.

He got to the huddle of ramshackle buildings that constitute Château Rayas at the forewarned hour of 3pm, to find every window and door shuttered. Knocking and calling resulted in a resounding silence. Frustrated and puzzled, he reluctantly climbed into his car and started to drive off down the dirt track back towards the main road, only to see in his rear view mirror the unmistakable shape of Monsieur Reynaud furtively climbing out of a ditch.

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Jancis Robinson

Louis’s younger son Jacques took over in 1980 and was arguable even less sociable. He met his end in 1997, buying a new pair of shoes (he had a heart attack) in the nearby town of Courthézon. The place is now run by his nephew Emmanuel, who also owns the distinctive Château des Tours in nearby Vacqueyras and has instituted a very slight glasnost. I managed to visit once in the Uncle Jacques era and now go once a year to taste the latest vintage during my autumn week in the southern Rhône. Well, most years. There was the time I turned up at the agreed time to taste his 2009s to find no sign of anyone, other than a monosyllabic winery worker who told me that his boss was busy overseeing the particularly late 2010 harvest. The last thing a Reynaud would do is bother to cancel an appointment – those appointments being so very, very rare.

Emmanuel Reynaud’s answering machine message ends: “Don’t bother to leave a message; I won’t bother to listen to it.” I have to rely on the extreme (perhaps very slightly self-interested) kindness of Rayas’ longstanding UK importer O W Loeb, whose managing director Chris Davey told me recently: “I fix two appointments per year – yours and mine. Maybe I am too soft on him, but I do all I can to make life easy for him. Years ago I made the mistake of going twice within 12 months and he looked at me as if I were mad.”

Rayas’ US importer is Martine Saunier of San Francisco (who recently sold her import business in order to concentrate on her blossoming career as a wine documentary star). I asked Christian Pillsbury, who used to work for her, whether he ever managed to fix up appointments at Rayas for his customers and was told: “I was much more willing to set up an appointment with Lalou Bize-Leroy [the fiendishly reclusive owner of one of Burgundy’s most sought-after domaines] because it was possible. I never once was able to set up a sommelier with a tour of Rayas.”

You get the picture: a visit to Rayas is special – but not just for its rarity. Needless to say, the many signs on the roads around the little village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape make no mention of Rayas. You have to drive up an unpaved road towards another well-known and well-signposted property, skirt round the back of it and turn off on to an even rougher track, rather unexpectedly signposted with a particularly rusty, pockmarked sign pointing to “Caves du Château Rayas”. Quite often there is a car lurking here, because Reynaud likes to apply groupage to his visitors. I generally find I am sharing my appointment with others – maybe sommeliers from the other side of France, or customers from the other side of the world – and the rendezvous is important enough for us all to arrive in good time.

It’s fun to watch the faces of first-time visitors. They do their very best to hide their horror at the exceptionally primitive nature of what confronts them. The floors are bare earth and everything, but everything, is grey. The wines are kept in barrels so ancient that they have no colour at all, and look as though they’ll fall apart at any moment. The rough stone walls are bare and all is festooned with cobwebs.

A bottle of Chateau Rayas 2010 vintage

The glorious (and elusive) 2010 vintage is the most recent bottled at Rayas, triangular vintage labels being stuck on by hand during quiet periods in the cellar

Reynaud turns the tap on an ancient tank of the whites and wields the wine thief on the metal-hooped barrels so that we are able to taste the last vintage but one of the wines he produces, the most recent one usually still fermenting away. Into our small, rather grimy tasting glasses go samples of the ingredients destined for Château Rayas red and white; the other Châteauneuf made here, Pignan; and the Côtes du Rhône red and white also vinified in these extraordinary cellars, Château de Fonsalette.

The greatest shock is how pure and fresh are the wines that come out of these dusty, cobwebby containers. They taste like the elixir of life, despite apparently having been raised in Miss Havisham’s boudoir. Of course the cellars are extremely dark and there is not a flat surface in sight, so this is one of the few visits when I have to resort to a notebook of the paper sort. Finding words for these exceptional wines is always difficult; finding the bottles to buy even trickier. Importers tend to allocate rather than sell the wines and the best bet is generally the wine lists of Rhône-prone restaurants in France. If you could find them retail, a bottle of, say, Château Rayas 2007 red would cost more than £300 while Fonsalette might cost only about £45 – far more than any other wine that qualifies only for the modest Côtes du Rhône appellation.

If I’d had room I was going to compare and contrast the Rayas cellars to the pristine, cosseted nature of those of another Châteauneuf, much more recently anointed with cult status, Clos St-Jean on the outskirts of the village itself. Prada-dressed Vincent Maurel, who put on an impressive tasting for me during my first visit there last December, could hardly be more different from Emmanuel Reynaud. One thing the establishments did have in common though: not a drop of water to drink.

See tasting notes on JancisRobinson.com

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Jancis’s favourite 2011 chateauneufs

This is not an outstanding vintage but these were my favourites (all but one of them red):

• Clos du Caillou, Les Quartz

• M Chapoutier, Barbe Rac

• Dom de la Charbonnière, Cuvée Mourre des Perdrix

• Dom Giraud, Les Gallimardes

• Dom de Marcoux, Vieilles Vignes

• Mayard, La Crau de ma Mère

• Clos des Papes Blanc

• Dom du Père Caboche, Elisabeth Chambellan

• Ch Rayas

• Tardieu Laurent, Cuvée Spéciale

• Dom des Trois Cellier, Privilège

For stockists, see wine-searcher.com

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