A small group gathered at one of our favourite haunts to enjoy an evening investigating the remarkable wines of Chateauneuf-du-Papes from Chateau Rayas. These were served alongside what we considered the perfect match: roast chicken and chips from Mark Hix, the best in London bar none.
Rayas is a wine that many have not heard of or been lucky enough to drink. This is partly because there isn’t much produced, and partly because those who do buy it don’t sell – and often don’t share – so it’s not easy to come by. So it took time but we managed to assemble a vertical of vintages from the latest release, 2009, to the legendary 1978, with many of the great vintages in between. I say ‘great vintages’ but to be totally honest I cannot think of a vintage of Rayas I have tasted that hasn’t been great; in fact the majority have been more than great... stunning, beguiling, intoxicating and pure heaven would be closer to the mark.
We started slowly with a mouthwash or ‘benchmarker’ of a Rayas wine classified as Cotes du Rhône Villages, Fonsalette 2007 and 1990. The 2007 was effortless with purity and elegance, sweet pure raspberry and spice, lovely balance and very fresh acidity, whereas the 1990 was dark, stinky and dirty, but in a very good way. Lots of dried fruits, leather, game and Indian spice although still remarkably young and alive. Both were way above your average CdR and would sit happily alongside many well know Chateauneuf-du-Papes.
Then followed an interesting pairing of the 2005 Chateau Pignan, a sister property in CNDP to Rayas, and Chateau Rayas 2005. I will mention this many a time during this blog but once again the purity of fruit and elegance of tannins on both wines is remarkable – no, stunning. Both wines are still so young but the power of the Rayas is evident alongside the Pignan. Aromas of both were dominated by dark fruits and ground pepper, but the Rayas has extra layers of licorice and truffles – what a wine. Pignan 2005 96 points, Rayas 2005 98+ (I have no doubt it will hit 100 points with a few more years in bottle).
Next up were Rayas 2009 and 2007, two of the greatest young vintages of Rayas, and even though relatively new to the market, both not easy to find. Try and find a full case of either wine in the market today, I challenge you.
It may be wrong to be opening either bottle at such an early stage in their lives, but God I’m glad we did. Both flirt with perfection and this is mainly due to the extraordinary ballerina-like balance and the correct nature of the ripeness, purity, tannins, palate weight and acidity that is so evident in both wines. They absolutely sing of fresh raspberries, wild strawberries, hints of pepper and spice. If served blind you could easily be in Grand Cru Burgundy territory for the mouthfeel and delicate nature of the wines. I absolutely love these wines and although extremely young they are so full of life and vibrancy that they are already intoxicating to drink...both hitting 97-99 points at this stage.
The 2006 is not as powerful as the 2007 and 2005, but it is still a very beautiful glass of wine with hints of kirsch and raspberry. Once again the delicate nature of the wine and the balance of the tannins is remarkable. If served on its own it would rise above most other Chateauneuf-du-Papes from the 2006 vintage. 95 points
As if one weren’t enough, we had another bottle of the Rayas 2005 served alongside the supposedly hot 2003 vintage. I have had the 2005 a few times before and I think it was probably my 2nd or 3rd favourite bottle I drank all of last year, and to be honest I had a few pretty serious ones. It again flirts with perfection in the glass. The 2003 is a revelation given the heat of the vintage, the famous trees around the vineyard maintaining a cooler micro-climate in extreme heat - and the delicate handling of the vinification by Emmanuel has worked wonders...this is classic Rayas with raspberry and kirsch, floral undertones and the peppery/licorice spicy finish. 96 points
2000 hit the heights of alcohol at 15.2%, and the wine does have a rich, ripe, fleshy underbelly that could do with a touch more acidity, if I had to be massively critical (this is honestly hard to do with any of these wines). It is the most ‘upfront and obvious’ of the wines – sweet, powerful, seductive and comforting. 94+ points (although this is a wine that requires little thought beyond ‘this is just utterly delicious to drink’.) It was maybe not the best idea to serve the 1999 after the beast that is the 2000, as it is the vintage with the least fleshy fruit; it is still absolutely delicious but in the company it is overshadowed. Again the fruit purity is evident, lifted by secondary characters of leather, game and truffles all kicking in to lift it well above the ordinary. 93 points
The 1995 is another show stopping wine. The aromatics hit you as the wine is being poured – purity, purity, purity – I love the fruits, blackcurrants and raspberries lifting from the glass, with Indian spices, leather and sweet floral notes. Apparently only 1000 cases were made for the world. This wine is simply spectacular. 99 points
Now two vintages that have been compared in almost every wine region in France... tick tock, tick tock, which is better… as you may well know I’m a massive 1989 fan in Bordeaux, and have strong feelings that most of the wines from 1989 are already or will indeed outperform the 1990s. This view is not in line with pricing when it comes to Rayas: the 1989 is around £1000 a bottle, the 1990 now nearer £1500 a bottle... so here we go.
1990 is 100 points from Bob, and you can see where he is coming from – some might view this as strange given Bob’s reputation for appreciating fruit and power over elegance and balance... but honestly the 1990 Rayas is the perfect combination of the two. Extremely complex aromas of cherries, kirsch, game and licorice move to leather and spice and onto tobacco and truffle... it is hard to stop sniffing the glass and listen to the conversation at the table (nothing against my fellow diners, but this wine is a meal by itself and you could watch it develop over a few hours in silence...) I was going to award this a straight 100, until I picked up the 1989, so for now 99+ for the 1990. Using the 1990 as a benchmark for the next two wines, perfection was surely required on every level in order to hit the magical 100 points... so step up the plate 1989. It is not as dark in colour as the 1990, but it is aromatically superior if you can find that believable. All of the 1990 but with an extra level, and the palate weight and balance is extraordinary. Can you imagine serving 1989 Rayas followed by 1989 Haut Brion...? Sorry I need a minute just contemplate that... the Rayas 1989 is definitely 100 points!!
Finally we take on the legendary 1978, and a million thanks to the fellow dinner who delved into his remarkable cellar to bring out this beauty. Now this is all about how you like your wines. This bottle it is now all Asian spice, figs and mocha with classic southern French garrigue and pepper. The fruits have faded somewhat and the tannins have softened, although the acidity is still remarkably fresh and alive. It is another brilliant wine, but honestly I prefer the position of the 1989/1990 in terms of the stage in their drinking lives... the pure fruit elements of the younger vintages are what I personally crave more. 97 points
It is unusual for any wine tasting event to have every single wine absolutely singing and performing in such a manner – but across the board the wines from Rayas are both complex and intoxicating, immensely powerful and yet delicate in nature. They are as pure as wine can get, of that I have no doubt. If you want to see just why and how Grenache can sit proudly alongside Pinot Noir as the sexiest grape variety on the planet... well, just drink Rayas.