The Most Coveted Wine You've Probably Never Heard Of

You are to be forgiven if the name Henri Jayer doesn't ring a bell. Wine-lovers know what Mouton and Lafite mean, and are aware enough of Pétrus to have pondered its proper pronunciation (it is "peh-troose"). Even scarcer and more lusted-after are the fabled bottlings of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC for short) from Burgundy, which author Roald Dahl once wrote were capable of producing "an orgasm at once in the mouth and in the nose."

But under the radar for even many collectors flies another Burgundian producer, Henri Jayer. No major movie lionizes it like Sideways did Cheval Blanc, nor, despite its rhyming potential ("Zheye-ay"), do hip hop songs rhapsodize about it like they do for "Dom P" and Cristal.

Yet those in the know find ways, however indirect, to celebrate the wine. More than a few wine pros use an image of a Jayer label as their wallpaper on Instagram or Twitter, like fellows of a secret society signaling membership to each other. The wine also appears in the Japanese cult manga series The Drops of God, in which the Speed Racer-like characters seek out the world's best wines (in it, Jayer is declared "the god of Burgundy"). An iconoclastic Oregon winery even makes a high-low homage to Jayer with a T-shirt that swaps "Henri Jayer" for "Oscar Mayer" in the meat company's familiar logo.

Such admiration, and the fact that Jayer bottles are often among the world's most expensive when they appear at auction, is not just because only a microscopic quantity of this juice was made. (With as few as 3,500 bottles of each Jayer wine released every year, the output was indeed tiny by even the standards of Burgundy, where limited geography and fractured ownership naturally limits supply.) But miniscule production only partially explains the unique scarcity of Jayer's wines.

Unlike exalted Burgundies such as DRC and Domaine Leroy, which replenish with each new year, Henri Jayer wines were only made, from various vineyards, from the early 1950's to 2001. After that, Jayer himself fully retired and no more bottles carried his name, leaving what was fermented in those five decades to begin a slow disappearance from Earth.

To be sure, after 2001 the precious terroir that Jayer farmed lives on in bottles of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, the producer with whom Jayer had a sharecropper agreement, and Domaine Emmanuel Rouget, Jayer's nephew by marriage. While no one disputes that Méo-Camuzet and Rouget make celebrated wine, they remain like the new owners who take over a beloved restaurant: the magic, for many, will never be quite the same.

Henri Jayer was a disruptor decades before that term became part of the startup lexicon. At a time when questionable practices such as overcropping and the liberal use of chemical pesticides were the norm in Burgundy, the then 30-year-old winemaker showed a respect for the land and a passion for detail that would inspire future generations. He believed passionately in low yields — that is, in severely pruning his grapevines so they produced fewer but more flavorful grapes. He also was an early advocate of cold-soaking the crushed grapes for several days before fermentation, another way to rev up the wine's flavor as well as color.

And while other winemakers in the postwar years were filtering their wines to make them look clearer to drinkers, Jayer knew that this could diminish the wine's flavor and ageworthiness. Not only did he just say no to filtration, he often announced it, like a defiant rapper, on a separate strip placed prominently above the label: "Ce vin n'a pas été filtré" — "The wine has not been filtered."

Martine Saunier, the retired 84-year-old California-based wine importer credited with "discovering" Jayer, attributes many of the innovations he introduced to the uncommon education he received. "When I started there was no enology program in Burgundy," she recalls. "Wine knowledge was learned from your grandfather. You made decisions by taste."

Jayer, on the other hand, was able to attend classes at the University of Dijon just as it was establishing a curriculum in enology. There he studied under one of the great minds of modern winemaking, René Engel, a professor and vintner who was devoted to improving wine quality through science-based vinification techniques.

But it was not just his schooling that stood Jayer apart. "The Engineer," as friends knew him, had a searching mind and a passion for innovation that could not be bridled. It was not enough for him to modernize Burgundy; he also single-handedly willed his own world-class vineyard into existence. In 1951, he bought the first parcel of an abandoned vineyard called Cros Parantoux in the appellation of Vosne-Romanée. Like those who recognized the possibilities in the derelict tracks that would become New York City's High Line Park, Jayer realized the potential in what was then a tract of land strangled with inhospitable rocks and deep-rooted Jerusalem artichoke plants.

According to James K. Finkle, who translated Burgundian wine writer Jacky Rigaux's book A Tribute to the Great Wines of Burgundy: Henri Jayer, despite its location next to the legendary vineyard of Richebourg, Cros Parantoux was neglected because unlike the other vineyards in the area, it had no road access and was only reachable by footpaths. Undaunted, Jayer persisted and after more than two more decades of land purchases and a herculean effort at clearing and replanting Cros Parantoux, which is not even three acres in size, the vineyard was primed for greatness.

Its splendor was confirmed in the most unlikely of venues: a Los Angeles deli that also sells fine wine. Importer Saunier recalls the pivotal day when she brought the inaugural 1978 vintage of Jayer's Cros Parantoux into Greenblatt's Delicatessen in West Hollywood to show the wine alongside those of other importers. "Where on Earth did you find this?" asked Roy Kavin,the store's wine-savvy proprietor, as the spicy perfume of fine Burgundy eclipsed that of the store's smoky pastrami.

Word spread fast. Joe Smith, a noted wine collector who was then CEO of Capitol/EMI Music, scooped up as many cases as he could, paying only about $40 a bottle in 1980 (the 1978 Cros Parantoux currently goes for 400 times that or more). Robert Mondavi and other honchos of the vine heard about it and sought out bottles. Eventually even star winemaker Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy, then a co-manager of DRC, expressed her awe. "I told Aubert de Villaine [her then partner and current co-manager at DRC] that this is the wine we should have made," Saunier recalls Bize-Leroy saying.

Earlier this year, a longtime collector shared with his family and me 17 different bottlings of Henri Jayer, an impossible stash worth about $120,000 today — and the perfect way to gain insight into Jayer's art over several years and vineyards.

These were not what you would call a shy or thin style of red Burgundy, a wine made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes that can sometimes lack for flavor and weight given the region's relatively cool, mercurial weather. No, the wine mirrored what was said about the man himself — an exemplar of intensity and concentration. It was fleshy, expressive, and, aged as it was in expensive new oak barrels, approachable and relatively soft. Jayer's friends remember him (he died in 2006) as both a welcoming mentor to young winemakers and a determined gourmand. Importer Saunier told me that at his home they would enjoy his Burgundy with quintessential matches like pigeon and other game birds, but also occasionally with a humble plate of macaroni and cheese.

Drinking these wines, one was struck at how compelling they were even from otherwise disappointing vintages — i.e., years in which weather prevented grapes in Burgundy from fully ripening. Wines from 1986 and 1988, years plagued by heavy rainfall, for example, were positively delicious.

"Jayer was ruthless in that he selected only the finest grapes from a harvest," author Finkle explained. "This made his wines excellent in poor vintages."

Jayer's commitment to rigorous grape selection also helps explain why several of the less-than-top-status wines — i.e., wines from vineyard land ranked below Burgundy's pinnacle designation, grand cru, showed well. The greatest surprise came at the third-tier in Burgundy's hierarchy: a village-level wine — that is, wine from grapes grown anywhere within a particular village. Here a 1988 Jayer from the village of Vosne-Romanée awed the table with a stunning richness and complexity. I can safely say that it was the best village-level Burgundy I've tasted in my life.

Moving on to Jayer's breakout Cros Parantoux, from a vineyard officially classified as a premier cru but viewed by experts as worthy of the elevated grand cru status, the bottles were mostly exceptional, blooming with ripe red fruit, Asian spices, and a satiny texture. Many of them performed the kind of alchemy you find in the best Burgundies, showing the ability to taste rich but not heavy. A 1989 charmed with sweet pomegranate-like fruit, and a 1996 had an enthralling depth, evoking beets one minute and flowers the next, along with a silkiness that was hard to forget.

Perched relatively high on the slope of Vosne-Romanée, Cros Parantoux has a cooler microclimate than that of vineyards slightly downhill from it. This lower temperature can lend an invigorating crispness to the wines, but, in the case of a 1986 Cros Parantoux, that acidity presented as unpleasantly tart.

At the grand cru level, Jayer rarely disappointed. While a 1979 Échezeaux had a distractingly funky, barnyardy nose, its taste was gorgeously intense and smooth, and a 1999 elicited oohs and aahs with the perfume of red berries mingled with an inky, mineral character someone likened to newsprint.

The pièce de résistance was a 1959 Jayer Richebourg, from the grapes of this revered Burgundy vineyard grown in a year considered one of the best of the century. Even though the collector sourced his wine with a meticulousness befitting the electrical engineering Ph.D. that he is, we scrutinized all of the bottles and especially this rara avis for inconsistencies on the label and other signs of counterfeiting.

Given its off-the-charts value (at least $25,000, according to Bonhams wine specialist Erin McGrath) and its relatively uncomplicated, easy-to-fake label, it is no surprise that Jayer is a favorite of fraudsters. In fact, according to Peter Hellman's book In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire, infamous wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan was in the process of unloading sham bottles of 1985 Jayer Richebourg on the day the FBI raided his home.

Even experts get duped: Two years ago, a respected Master of Wine tweeted high praise for a 1959 Jayer Richebourg along with its photo, only to have eagle-eyed connoisseurs correctly identify it as a fake because of a few subtle errors on its label. James Finkle confirmed for me that he too has encountered his share of Jayer fakes, the clue for him being the label's texture, which on fakes may be flat and shiny rather than having the slightly ridged, corduroy-like feel of authentic bottles.

Fortunately, our group had the real deal. Once examined, opened, and poured, the 1959 Richebourg proved fresh and generous, a veritable Roman candle of plums, cherries, spice, and smoke. It had a minty-woodsy character that reminded an artist at the table of "Arches watercolor paper" and "India ink". To me, it was like the best forest ever, inhaled — Muir Woods in a glass. Its velvety finish rolled on forever, and only after about an hour did its flavor start to fade. We marveled that a full 59 years into its evolution the wine was still so fresh and persistent.

In the next few months, a smattering of Henri Jayer bottles will be surfacing at auction houses such as Hart Davis Hart and Sotheby's. Then, in June, a Swiss auction house is selling what may be the Jayer mother lode: an unprecedented collection of 1,064 pristine Jayer bottles sourced directly from the late winemaker's personal reserve cellar in Vosne-Romanée. Each precious bottle has been fitted with a ProofTag, a high-tech identification device allowing the wine's owner to prove its authenticity.

What is an oenophile to do? If you have the means, curiosity, and trust in the bottles' provenance, you had best not hesitate. Jayers are being drunk to near-extinction while some of those that remain are starting to pass their peak maturity. Although it is difficult to justify a bottle of wine that can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000 or more depending on the vineyard and vintage, Jayer offers more than just extreme rarity and, at its best, ethereal taste. It is no less than the chance to taste the output of a founding figure of modern Burgundy.

While many wineries today promote the romantic and often exaggerated notion of a farmer-winemaker toiling in the fields and the cellar room, Jayer was genuinely dedicated to integrity in both places at a time when this was not a priority. Long before the wine industry embraced organic farming and less interventionist winemaking practices, Jayer was demonstrating what respect for the environment and restraint in the winery could achieve.

In this frazzled digital age, we would all do well to heed the advice that Jayer once gave a vintner asking how could improve his wine's fermentation process. His suggestion? "Buy a chair and wait until it is finished."