Henri Jayer

Purist Burgundy winemaker


Henri Jayer, winemaker: born Vosne-Romanée, France 1922; married 1942 Marcelle Rouget (two daughters); died Dijon, France 20 September 2006.

Compared with the grandeur of Bordeaux châteaux and their proprietors, the wine of Burgundy seems the creation of inspired artisans and peasants - none of them more revered than Henri Jayer.

Although his personal holdings were hardly more than 12 acres, Jayer became the most renowned Burgundy maker of his generation, with his early bottles of Echézeaux now selling for more than £3,000 a bottle and the fabled Richebourg 1959 for £10,000. This meant that his wines were even more expensive - and rare - than the fabled Burgundy of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Many other small Burgundy growers followed the same principles as he did, none more than Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but Jayer encapsulated the notion of the principled purist who sought to create the finest wine with the least human interference. Because of his intimacy with the soil of his vineyards, he was said to create his wines on the vine rather than in the cellar.

As if to enhance his reputation as a simple farmer, the third most influential parcel of his wines, Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux, was originally a small plot of scrubland that was used to grow Jerusalem artichokes. After purchasing it in the early Fifties, Jayer removed the larger rocks with his wheelbarrow and then eventually purchased two other tiny portions before he eventually bottled it as a separate vineyard in 1978. He never produced more than 300 cases annually of this particular wine but it established his reputation as the greatest vigneron of his generation. When the co-owner of Domaine Romanée-Conti tasted the 1978 vintage, she declared that this was the quality of wine that they aspired to make.

Jayer's rise also coincided with a backlash against the notion of producing clean, filtered wines at the expense of authentic, earthy wines that threw natural sediment in the bottle. He was also fortunate to find a strong champion in the US wine guru Robert Parker, who extolled the virtues of his wine in his influential Wine Advocate newsletter.

Henri Jayer was born in Vosne- Romanée in 1922, the third son of the owner of three small parcels of land purchased in the wake of the disastrous phylloxera epidemic, which destroyed French vineyards in the late nineteenth century. He left school at 16 and, when his elder brothers joined the French army, he took control of the vineyards, taking weekly lessons in viticulture from a local Burgundy winemaker.

Unlike Bordeaux, where vineyards can be 50 acres or more, Burgundy comprises scores of small parcels or strips of land which can be as little as a fraction of an acre, all mixed together within specific appellations. While tending his own vines, using sélection massale (a system of only using the best vines to graft on to existing root stocks rather than importing new vines), he also leased other smallholdings and was granted the right to produce 50 per cent of these crops under his own name. However, even when ownership of these leaseholds passed to someone else in 1959, he continued to be the winemaker of the remaining 50 per cent, even though it was bottled under an entirely different name.

His two daughters did not wish to continue his business so, when he contemplated retirement in 1987, he passed control of his own vineyards to his nephew Emmanuel Rouget, although again he continued in an advisory role right up until 2002.

To add to the complications, his two brothers also owned plots of land that he tended on their behalf so that, although it was bottled under their names, it was again solely produced by him. Even after he retired, he continued to produce a hundred or so cases of wines from his vineyards for personal use and for friends, but such is his reputation that this has also appeared on the world market at phenomenal prices.

Jayer's impact on younger Burgundian wine makers was immense, although his practices were hardly revolutionary, being intended to maintain the purity of his wine. For instance, he preferred dramatically to prune back his grapes in the spring rather than in the summer, and believed in picking at the very last minute in order to optimise the ripeness of the grapes. He was also a great believer in understanding the subsoil of his vineyards, which he believed the other vignerons often overlooked.

He rarely travelled far from his modest modern villa in Burgundy, although he did occasionally attend special events in his honour. He only made one visit to the United Kingdom in 1997, when a dinner to celebrate his 75th birthday was given for him at Le Gavroche in London.

In appearance he looked like a modest farmer, though people who knew him such as the wine writer Jancis Robinson remarked on the brightness of his eyes and his natural intelligence: "He may have driven a tractor in the daytime but in the evening he was just as happy to drive his Mercedes to a grand local restaurant."

His wines were to be found in virtually every three-star restaurant in France, though never in great amounts. His greatest pride was his Cros Parantoux, which could often outshine the grander wines of neighbouring Richebourg.

Roy Richards, his UK importer for more than 35 years, said that Jayer, through sheer intelligence, made wines that were dramatically sensual: "He believed wines were made to be drunk, so the more hedonistic they were, they happier he was."

Bruce Palling

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