The Most Coveted Wine You've Probably Never Heard Of

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

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.”