Although I appreciate good wine, I’m quite useless at selecting ‘a good bottle’. As such, when ordering wine at a restaurant, I try to play it safe and select something that I know — i.e. from a region or from an estate that I’m familiar with. While this formula is mostly successful, it is not foolproof and as such, I can’t help but be disappointed when wine from ‘a good region’ is lackluster, dull, or just unpleasant. In particular, Bruce and I have had more bad bottles than good ones from the famed region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape than we care to admit! So, to remedy this problem, we decided to include visits to a few of the top CN-du-P estates during one driving holiday around France. The goal was to visit the wineries and do a tasting so that we can separate the good from the bad.
Based on recommendations from a friend, we selected the ‘top 5’ CN-du-P wine estates to try: Rayas, Beaucastle, Vieux Telegraphe, La Nerthe, and Fortia. We had no problems visiting the top 4 estates and they all made us feel welcomed. But the top estate (Rayas) was a bit of a mystery as it was not on any tasting map. Intrigued, we went to a local wine shop to inquire more information about Rayas. The owner of the wine shop gave a friendly chuckle when we stated that we wanted to visit the estate. ‘Not possible!’ he said as the old man who runs it is largely regarded as ‘slightly mad’. The owner chuckled again when we asked if we could buy a bottle of Rayas from him. Apparently, it is far easier to buy a bottle of Rayas in London or in Tokyo than it is to buy it in France as almost all is exported abroad. We are now really intrigued!
Determined to find the Rayas winery, we asked the locals for directions. It was clear from the beginning that this would not be easy. We had to find another wine estate, then turn into a dirt road which then turned into a mud road which then turned into a country track. We drove and bounced along the back alleys of several estates until we reached the end of the road the locals told us to take. At first, we thought that we were lost as the only estate that we could see was signposted as Chauteau something-something and there were no signs for Chateau Rayas! We almost turned our car around and head back to the village when Bruce spotted a _tiny_ sign hidden in the bushes that had an arrow and the wonderful words “Chateau Rayas”.
Buoyed with relief (and joy), we turned into another dirt road and drove. But, after a few minutes, we became concerned as there were no telltale signs of a chateau tower or manicured garden (like Chateau Beacastle and Chauteau La Nerthe). All we saw were rows and rows of grape vines in the fields. Finally, we past an old shabby building on our left (and I’d remarked to Bruce that we must be close by because this must be where the Rayas migrant field workers lived) and continued to drive on until we came across a chain that ran across the dirt path. Dead end. And, no chateau.
As we made such an effort to find this place, we decided to go back to the only building we saw and ask for help/direction.
I would be kind to describe this place as shabby. It was more akin to a moonshine shack somewhere in the backwaters of the Mississippi. Needless to say, it looked very unwelcoming. Bruce wanted to hop back into the car and head back to the village. But, I’m pig-headed stubborn. So, when we arrived at the ‘front door’, we noticed that the door bell was pulled out. Furthermore, the windows were blacken out and plastics bags and rubbish were jammed into every nook along the window for privacy. Despite the inhospitable look of the place, we knocked on the door. Silence. We knocked again. Silence. In the end, we got the message and got into the car and drove back to the village. But, as we pulled out, Bruce noticed shadows moving in the shed adjacent to the house. There are obviously people about but they just didn’t want to be disturbed.
At the end of our driving holiday in France, I recounted this story to my sister (she is also a foodie). Intrigued by our story, she did some investigation. A few days later, she emailed me an article that she found on the internet about Chateau Rayas. Apparently, the “moonshine shack” where I thought the migrant farm workers might be living was actually Chateau Rayas ! ! ! OMG! The writer of this article did exactly the same thing we did and had the same issues we had. Except, on the day the writer knocked on the door, Mr. Rayas Senior was in the mood for visitors and answered the door.
Lucky bugger . . . .
Months later and at Christmas, my sister presented us her surprise gift: two bottles of Rayas!!! And, with all honesty here, it was ASTOUNDING! It was simply the best bottle of red I have ever had. I could go into the details about the taste and notes, etc. but that would be pretentious. The simple truth is that a Rayas makes all other red wine taste like water. It is that good!
FYI: since our visit, the allegedly ‘slightly mad’ owner has died and his son has taken over the running of the estate. The wine we tasted was from a vintage when the elder Mr. Rayas was in charge.