It's not easy replacing a legend. Even the best face criticism when attempting to fill the shoes of someone who captured people's hearts. Such has been the plight of Emmanuel Reynaud at Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Rayas became one of the appellation's most highly regarded domaines under the leadership of Reynaud's uncle, Jacques Reynaud, who achieved legendary status for the wines he made during the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. When Jacques died after the '96 vintage, Emmanuel was forced to take the reins.
Despite a strong run of vintages in the Southern Rhône starting with 1998 (save for '02), the Rayas wines have had trouble lighting a fire among their constituency. I've even seen a trend to jump off the Rayas bandwagon altogether. But in my opinion, that move is entirely premature.
Yes, the wines have changed. But how could a small, high quality wine estate not be different after a winemaker change? In addition, when Emmanuel took over Rayas, he was still running his own property, Château des Tours in Vacqueyras. And his first vintage at Rayas (1997) is not particularly strong for Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
"Of course it is different now. I am a different person," explains Reynaud, matter-of-factly. "The weather is different. Every vintage is different. It would be impossible if the wine wasn't different."
Jacques Reynaud's reputation was well-deserved. At their best, his wines at Rayas offered lilting perfume and layers of lush, pure raspberry fruit that set them apart stylistically from the rest of the appellation. But for all intents and purposes, the Rayas legend is built upon the stunning success of only a handful of vintages, namely 1978, '89, '90 and '95. The vintages in between are better than average, but not quite in the same league.
Look at the mercurial nature of the auction prices for the wine. According to Wine Spectator's auction index, the '78 sells for more than $900 a bottle, and the '89 and '90 for around $700 and $800, respectively. However, most other older vintages sink to less than half that, and the recent vintages under Emmanuel's tenure are in the low $100 range.
Emmanuel has also had to work with a shifting vineyard base. Jacques had replanted more than 50 percent of the property's vineyard land during the early '80s, which means that today the majority of the property has vines of about 25 years of age. That's young by any measure of Châteauneuf-du-Pape standards. Young vines are notoriously productive, and that tendency to over-produce is the kiss of death for a grape like Grenache, which is as fickle as Pinot Noir when it comes to yields. No serious vignerons feel they can make good wine with Grenache unless yields can be consistently held under 2 tons per acre.
Rayas does have plots of old vines, but they are dying out, as old vines do. Rayas is also a good-sized property for the appellation—nearly 30 acres—and there is no separate old-vine cuvée here, as at many other Châteauneuf properties. (Another 5 acres of the property are in the Pignan lieux-dit; the grapes are bottled separately for the wine by the same name.) So everything is being cultivated for one wine at a time when the old vines are falling into the distinct minority of the property's plantings.
"It's easy to make a great wine when you only are dealing with old vines," says Reynaud. "Or making a cuvée of only 1,000 bottles."
But despite these hurdles, I think the wines under Reynaud's tenure have improved in one important regard—they have been more consistent. The Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réservé 2001 rated 91 points when I reviewed it on release, and both the '03 and '04 vintages showed outstanding promise when tasted during a visit to Rayas in March. In addition, the '98 (Reynaud's second vintage) is putting on considerable weight and gaining definition.
I've hung on with wineries before, continuing to buy new vintages even after detecting unsettling shifts in style or quality. Sometimes I've been disappointed, left with a few middling vintages at the tail end of what had been a strong run. But in this case, I am not concerned. The terroir at Rayas is too good to give up on, and Reynaud is too early in his tenure to dismiss. I look forward to building a new vertical in my cellar, with the new Château Rayas.