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Friday, June 13, 2008

Chateau Rayas, and its Band of Merry Men from Fonsalette

1999 Rayas Blanc
A 50/50 split between Clairette and Grenache Blanc (generally speaking, but who knows w/ this estate) that comes across as an imaginary cross of an aged Chablis and a youthful Sancerre. Flinty aromas reveal layers of smoke, apple peel, wilted lilacs and crushed stones. The flavors are subtle, evoking the essence of liquefied minerals, pumping along an intensely bright spine of turbo charged acidity, excellent persistence and fine precision, 89 points.

1994 Chateau Rayas
It’s been said time and time again, but this wine is, in fact, very Burgundian. A splash of garrigue, cherry pit and red plums dance through the air in the medium bodied wine of textbook elegance and finesse. The finish is coated in crunchy acidity, speckled with hints of earth and a firm, mineral laced grip, 88 points.

1995 Fonsalette Syrah
This bottle is a stark contrast to the same vintage I drank last week in that it was much less evolved. Structurally, this is packed, keeping a firm grip on the primary notes of violet, cassis and ground pepper flavors that pump out on a channeled, bright frame. Things lock down a bit firmly on the finish, as a buried hint of iron and intense graphite grip lurk in the background. Well stored bottles will likely need close to 5 more years to wiggle their way towards prime drinking, 93+ points.

1999 Fonsalette Cotes du Rhone
Ever wonder what Cinsault does to a blend? Well folks, here’s your answer. This red produced some of the most distinctive characteristics I’ve noted in recent memory, as a barrage of game-coated elements reveal themselves in the form of red cabbage, fried green beans, decaying vegetation, bramble, cracked pepper and worn leather. Certainly esoteric, w/ a rugged, raw presentation, yet manages to pull things together on the finish, thanks to the rustling acidity that keeps its almost unruly elements in check, 86 points.

1990 Fonsalette Syrah
While a Rayas trademark has been the lack of pigment in their wines, this was hands down the most inky, saturated robe I’d seen any Southern Rhone wine wear (much less at almost 20 years of age!). Swirling this diamond in the glass revealed pure, ambrosia-like delights, as a torrent of black truffle oil, freshly paved road tar, wild herbs, spice cake, fig sauce and unatamed earthy elements emerged in the jaw-dropping nose. The wine is fantastically proportioned in the mouth, w/ completely resolved tannin, magnificent presence and impeccable symmetry. There is a sense of presence to this wine that belies description and almost takes your breath away, finishing w/ verve and class. Make no mistake; this was a heavenly performance from Fonsalette. From a qualitative perspective, I think this would prove to be a fascinating ringer in a top Northern Rhone Syrah flight, not in the sense that it reminds me of the North, but it could hold its own amongst the best & is certain to turn heads, as it certainly did ours, 96 points.

1989 Pignan
Recent tastings of top ’89s have proved to please in all the right places (not to mention being youthful little buggers) and this Pignan was front and center, taking its cues beautifully. Heady, flamboyantly ripe overtones of black raspberry, kirsch liqueur, resin and black tea fill the air, as if to whisper reminders in my ears as to why I love great Grenache. The midpalate is one big mouthful of hedonistic, sweet fruit, undercut by a vivacious, pure beam of cleansing acidity. The wine is deceptively lush and round, w/ a formidable structure that is certain to carry its flesh for at least another decade in the cellar, 94 points.

1990 Pignan
Sadly, was not meant to be. The first bottle was corked, the second showed significant signs of heat damage.

1988 Rayas
The attractiveness in the 88’s bouquet brought a vision of ‘strawberry fields forever’ to mind, dazzling w/ scents of sweet raspberry preserve, cola, strawberry ganache and notions of cold steel. The sweet attack is vivid, nearly mimicking the sensation of biting into fresh berries, yet there is a bit of a detracting hollowness & heat that escapes in the mid palate, leaving me curious as to whether or not the body & length will expand in time. Is what you see, in fact what you get w/ the ’88 Rayas? Time will tell. Gaps aside, this vintage left us w/ much to appreciate, 92 points.

2000 Rayas
Perhaps the lone disappointment of the evening, in spite of the spine-tingling flutter of lavender, red cherry cordial, linzer torte and rose petal aromas, the palate simply didn’t step up to the plate. Alcoholic fumes intrude this light to medium bodied wine, masking its skeletal depth, austere profile and attenuated finish. While a bit of air exposure did soften the structure and flesh out the palate a bit, this will likely continue to be a sub-par performance for Rayas, missing the mark in a stellar vintage, 86+ points.

2004 Rayas
This 2004 is a beguiling, textbook example of 2004, that has a typical up front, precocious nature, yet offers plenty in reserve for the cellar. Alluring hints of dry rub spices (chili powder, cinnamon, cardamom), cracked pepper, freshly cut rosemary, angus beef and gorgeous kirsch liqueur scents filled the room, and our imaginations, with bliss. A fabulously elegant entry paves the way for spicy, suggestive charms that are undercut by an almost rugged, feral quality, giving the mouth-feel an uncompromising sense of tension, pumping out high toned fruit along the gossamer finish, 94 points.

2001 Rayas
This vintage is more frankly structured & more deeply colored than either the ’00 or ’04. The nose serves up concoction of grilled Provencal herbs, forest berry, underbrush, pine resin, red currant and roast beef scents seethe from the glass, w/ piercing, yet backward intensity. In the mouth, the wine is not fat, but it has pastry-dough like layers of flesh that coat the stiff, tendon-rich structure, only hinting at the potential depth and nuance this effort is sure to tack on w/ another 5 plus years of bottle age. The finish really sucks you in, w/ a gorgeous beam of buried minerality that sails along effortlessly, 93+ points.

2003 Rayas
In spite of the year’s extremities, Rayas crafted a fine example of 2003, revealing forward fruit, supple texture and finely grained tannins. While plump and certainly lower in acid, the plush flavors of black cherry liqueur, sandalwood, damp earth and rose petals are wonderfully framed and offer compelling depth. This 2003 didn’t reveal any flaccid, raisined characteristics and should have enough sinew to brace it for another decade of pleasurable drinking, 93 points.

2003 Pignan
The two bottles I opened were horribly cooked, smelling more like distilled brandy than wine and add yet another wrinkle to the debate of the countless tales of baked ‘03s. Whether it be sweltering cellar conditions, careless shipping or simply poor storage, it is a problem and has made purchasing these wines a precarious proposition.

1995 Pignan
The ’95 Pignan showed impressively, making my less than stellar previous encounter a distant tasting memory, revealing oodles of kirsch liqueur, black raspberry and melted licorice scents that exploded from the glass. While formidably constituted, the layers of flavor are still compact and either in need of vigorous decanting or a few more years in the cellar. This 13 year old still has the vigorousness of an infant and is a formidably muscular effort from a cool, sandy terroir, 91 points.

1995 Rayas
One of the most heralded vintages of modern Rayas has to be the ’95, a deep ruby colored Grenache that is as coiled as any, suggesting notes of blueberries, tree bark, kirsch liqueur, bittersweet cocoa powder, melted licorice and warm fig bread. While seemingly impenetrable in the mouth (not an easy feat for a pure Grenache wine), there is a sleeping giant of concentration, moments away from a colossal impact. Nothing short of monumental in terms of power and focus, yet excruciatingly restrained in a similar fashion to classed growth Bordeaux that is too youthful and backward to fully reveal its inner core of flavors. As the finish echoes a chorus of garrigue, a fleeting grasp of greatness escapes the palate to the old sports cliché: ‘wait ‘till next year,’ 96+ points.

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