There are so many rumors about Jacques Reynaud, proprietor of Château Rayas and the most famous wine producer in Châteauneuf-du-Pape—the fabled Rhône Valley wine region in northwestern Provence—that separating fact from fiction is almost impossible. Does he really hide in ditches to avoid the unwelcome attentions of visiting journalists? Are his wines a blend of vintages? Is grenache the only red grape variety in his vineyards? Does he dare to add (illegal) chardonnay to his whites? And can his yield truly be as low as ten hectoliters per hectare (about four and a half cases of wine per acre)?
It is thus with a blend of curiosity and wariness that I drive towards Château Rayas. The "château" is a dilapidated country house set in the hills above the old papal town that gives the appellation its name. Will Reynaud be there? I wonder. Will he feel like talking? What mischief will he be up to? On my one previous visit to the sage of Châteauneuf, he had poured samples of his wine for me into a glass with no base, so that it could not be set down. I'd tried to scribble tasting notes with the glass tucked under my arm. "What vintage is this?" I'd asked about one barrel sample. "Depends," he had replied.
As it turns out, Reynaud is cooperative, if not exactly warm. "Well," he says when I arrive, "what do you want to do? Taste?" "Can we see the vineyards first?" I venture. "Fine," he answers, leading me off. Two hours later, we're still walking, and as we traipse around in the fields above the house, stopping now and then to savor the view towards Mont Ventoux, Reynaud begins to open up. The Rayas property includes about 86 acres of woods to 35 acres of vines. Their owner talks of both with equal affection. "Occasionally," he says, "people offer to buy the domaine. But why would I want to sell? I couldn't live anywhere else. I was born here among the trees and the vines."
It's just as well he wasn't born in his cellar. No midwife would work in such conditions. The floor is scattered with a bewildering flotsam of bald tires, traffic cones, sponges, beer bottles, bags of cement. Wading through the detritus, Reynaud takes out a little wooden ladder, climbs three steps, taps at a bung with his hammer, and plunges a pipette into an old foudre, or large cask. Perched on his ladder, he pours red wine into my glass (which has a base this time). It's the 1993 Rayas, which Reynaud professes to find disappointing. He doesn't think much of recent vintages in the southern Rhône, in fact. He picked no grapes in 1991, and claims to be underwhelmed by his 1992, 1993, and 1994 vintages.
If so, he's being a cranky perfectionist: Even in these vintages, admittedly comparatively light, Rayas reds display a perfume and an elegance that set them apart from their competitors. At times, their delicacy reminds me almost of fine burgundy. Perhaps Reynaud has got some pinot noir in his vineyards, I suggest. "It's too warm for pinot noir and too cold for mourvèdre," he smiles. "Grenache is all I need."