The Most Coveted Wine You've Probably Never Heard Of

The wines of Henri Jayer, who helped invent modern Burgundy, are disappearing fast

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.

Related

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.