You may not be able to taste it, but you can admire it. See Glorious Garnachas for some of the wines inspired by where this sign leads. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
There aren’t too many mysteries in the world of wine but here’s one. There’s a new style of wine followed by winemakers all over the world, a substantial number of them inspired by one particular wine that’s virtually impossible to buy. And, perhaps even more unexpectedly, that wine comes from a famous wine region where all the other wines are made by locals who seem determined to ignore this elsewhere-revered style and produce wines that are the polar opposite of it. Strange, eh?
Oh, and another thing. The wine of which I write, which I love and admire too, is made in the least salubrious cellar I have ever visited.
The wine is Château Rayas, a red Châteauneuf-du-Pape made from Grenache grapes which manages to be both rich and ethereal, transparent and floral, utterly hedonistic, necessarily alcoholic because Grenache needs full ripeness, but without heft.
I was reminded of Rayas’s totemic status when tasting a particularly delicious southern California Grenache courtesy of London wine merchants Lea & Sandeman recently. The notes that accompanied Angela Osborne’s Tribute to Grace 2017 from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard assured us tasters that her ‘raison d'être as a winemaker is replicating a bottle of Château Rayas she had many years ago, and finding the truest expression of Grenache possible’. As the notes continued, ‘wow, she has got very close with this wine’. It was the most delicious combination of white pepper, massive sweetness and convincing purity.
Until recently Grenache was a thoroughly scorned grape but now it is enjoying a revival of fortunes all over the world. This probably started in Spain, where Garnacha, as Grenache is known there, used to be the country’s most-planted red wine grape until a reverence for Tempranillo dislodged it from top spot. Because it’s particularly tolerant of drought, and its hard wood means it has not suffered from the vine trunk diseases that have decimated plantings of many other vine varieties, the average age of Garnacha vines is relatively high, which means their produce tends to be distinctly superior.
In 2008 when he founded Comando G with Fernando García, Dani Landi was the pioneer of ambitious, hand-crafted, delicate Garnacha, in this case grown on the granite with which Garnacha seems to have an affinity in the Gredos mountains south-west of Madrid. Landi readily admits that when he was starting out, Rayas was a reference point.
The reputation of filigree Gredos Garnachas grew to such an extent that similar wines began to be made all over Spain. Master of Wine Fernando Mora fashions an array of delicate Garnachas in Aragon under his Frontonio label. While writing this I emailed him to ask whether Ch Rayas had ever been an inspiration for him and got a response within seconds: ‘Yes, always.’ A few hours later he added, ‘plenty of herbs, flowers and fruit from a Pinot-like style with finesse and the ability to age is what makes me love that wine’.
In the decidedly unfashionable La Mancha wine region in central Spain Elías López Montero ages the fruit of a plot of old Garnacha vines for 11 months in the region’s traditional clay jars, tinajas, to produce the exceptional, pale red Verum, Ulterior Parcela No 6, giving it a refreshing mineral note and grainy texture. He loves these old tinajas so much that when a new one arrives in his cellar, having been sourced from a neighbour, he welcomes it with a heartfelt embrace. He too sees a similarity between these new Garnachas and the Pinot Noir of Burgundy and was inspired to try his hand at making one after having made Pinot Noir in Patagonia.
Australian wine producer Michael Hill Smith MW was in London recently showing off the wines of his latest venture MMAD, named after the initials of the four partners involved. It’s based on a relatively high vineyard with especially old vines, including some 80-year-old Grenache, a grape almost ignored in Australia until recently. He reported that that variety is now so fashionable (‘it’s very trendy inside the tent’) that the price of Grenache grapes doubled in the last two or three years to overtake that of Shiraz.
‘McLaren Grenache suddenly had perfume thanks to the wines of Steve Pannell and Yangarra’, he explained, adding, ‘like Pinot.’ In that tent is Rayas ever mentioned?, I asked. ‘All the time’, he responded rather wearily.
So here’s this wine that’s regarded by winemakers all over the world as a sort of holy grail. Yet I wonder how many of them have tasted it at all often? Although other Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers are currently touting their 2021s, the most recent vintage available of Ch Rayas is 2011, and prices have risen so vertiginously that a single bottle of 2011 Ch Rayas red (there is also a quirky, full-bodied white) now costs more than £1,500.
Wine writer John Livingstone-Learmonth of drinkrhone.com has decades of experience of Rhône wines and their makers. I asked him why Emmanuel Reynaud, who inherited Ch Rayas on the death of his hermit-like Uncle Jacques in 1997, was releasing the wine so slowly. ‘He does always release late these days’, he wrote, ‘given that Jacques went through a splurge of selling off nearly everything, the cellar denuded of bottles, the lesson learnt. There was no 2018 to speak of, so even more Emmanuel is inclined to allow stocks to rise to cover such years.’ He promised to try to find out more on his next visit to the Rhône, although admitted that he was having difficulty contacting Reynaud who is famously incommunicative. (See details of this phenomenon in Adventures in the southern Rhône.)
I wonder how many of the Rayas acolytes have visited the winery? Thanks to Rayas’s UK then-importer Chris Davey, I’ve managed five appointments at this distinctly unprepossessing building at the end of a winding, barely signposted lane, and managed to gain admittance to taste the young wines four times. The last time, in 2014, I turned up at the agreed time to find all the doors and shutters shut. I wandered round the back and found a lone labourer who told me his boss was busy at his other winery, Ch des Tours in Vacqueyras. (This is the only time I’ve been stood up by a wine producer.)
The most extraordinary to me, of many extraordinary aspects of Rayas, is how pure the wines are compared with the conditions in which they are made and aged. I’ve never seen such grey, ancient, cobwebby casks ranged apparently at random in the dusty, earth-floored winery.
Ch Rayas is not the only wine that (eventually) emerges from these unprepossessing cellars. There is also Pignan, from another plot on the property, and two Côtes du Rhônes, Ch de Fonsalette and La Pialade, these last two including grapes other than Grenache. Le Pialade is released earlier than the other wines; you can actually buy the 2015, if you’re prepared to pay a three-digit sum for a mere Côtes du Rhône.
Then to the final mystery: why do so few other producers of Châteauneuf make a wine even remotely like Rayas? Admittedly it has a particularly fine, sandy terroir but surely it can't be 100% unique? Most of the other producers seem stuck in the groove of the powerful, concentrated wines championed by American critics such as Robert Parker in the 1990s. Or perhaps the locals rarely get a chance to taste Rayas, and be inspired by it? When the wines are eventually released, they tend to whoosh out of the region straight into the global fine-wine market.
For many years I went to the village to taste hundreds of examples from the latest vintage and it was one of the most bludgeoning assaults on my palate, so concentrated were the wines. As in many regions, the wines have been lightening up in recent years – especially in the difficult 2021 vintage – but still, the style of the world’s favourite Châteauneuf remains, mysteriously, largely ignored by its neighbours.
Añadas, Care Garnacha Nativa 2020 Cariñena 14.5%
£10.75 Bush Vines
Viña Zorzal, Sea of Dreams 2019 Navarra 13.5%
£15.50 Songbird Wines, £15.99 Thorne Wines and NY Wines
Ramón Bilbao, Limite Sur Garnacha 2018 Rioja 14%
The 2017 is under £19 from Winestore, Eccleston and Great Wines Direct
Verum, Ulterior Parcela No 6 2018 Vino de la Tierra de Castilla 13.5%
£22 The Great Wine Co
S C Pannell, Basso Garnacha 2019 McLaren Vale 14%
$25.99 Vinous Reverie, Walnut Creek, CA
Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi, Las Uvas de la Ira Sierra de Gredos 2020 Méntrida 15%
£25 Berry Bros & Rudd, also available in bond from Bordeaux Direct
Frontonio, Telescópico 2019 IGP Valdejalón 13.5%
MMAD, Blewitt Springs Grenache 2021 McLaren Vale 14%
£41 Oz Wines
A Tribute to Grace, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache 2017 Santa Barbara 14.2%
£43.95 Lea & Sandeman
Yangarra, Ovitelli Grenache 2019 McLaren Vale 14%
$64.99 K&L, San Francisco
Marañones Garnacha 2020 Sierra de Gredos 14%
Expected at the Great Wine Co in 2023