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Henri Jayer, 82, is finding it tough to retire. In 2001 he announced that he was finished making wine, after 62 years in the business. But when the 2002 vintage arrived at his winery in Vosne-Romanée, he was there to greet the grapes.
Few Burgundians can match his experience, and Jayer is considered the dean of Burgundy winemakers. He started making wine with his father in 1939, at the age of 17, before striking out on his own in 1945. "Je suis un vieux routinier, I am an old fox," he says with a sly look.
On a crisp, sunny day in February, Jayer wears a black-and-gray wool cap on his balding head and sports a purple shirt over a green sweater. He's vigorous and intellectually sharp; he has few wrinkles and his brown eyes sparkle with humor.
During 2002, he kept his usual, meticulous daily annotations of the weather conditions, down to the number of hours of sun and light and inches of rain. He kept the records in an old-fashioned black date book. "It's a year without any major problem in the vineyards. The crop was healthy," he says, as he leafs through the book, starting in April and ending on Sept. 21, when he completed the harvest.
He likens the 2002 wines in his cellar to the charming wines of 1985, an outstanding vintage in Burgundy overall. "2002 isn't the vintage of the century," says Jayer now, "but we have a great year of pleasant and lovely wines, which will give a lot of pleasure." He still considers his 1978 red Burgundies the best wines of his career, but the 2002s rival the finest recent vintages: 1996 (rated 95 points, or classic, on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) and 1999 (90 points).
Since 1996, Jayer's nephew, Emmanuel Rouget, has rented the 16 acres that Jayer owns in the Côte d'Or, including the grand cru Échézeaux and the premier cru Vosne-Romanée Beaumonts. Through the 2001 vintage, Jayer still made about 1,000 bottles from two-thirds of an acre of Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux, a premier cru with 50-year-old vines; but in 2002, Rouget rented this parcel also. Now all wines made from Jayer's vineyards are sold under the Domaine Emmanuel Rouget label. "One day or another, you must stop," says Jayer.
Jayer's own winery doesn't stock the young wines, so he drives a few miles to Rouget's cellar in a nearby commune, Flagey-Échézeaux. The two men kiss each other on the cheeks, then step down steep stone stairs to the cool cellar, where the 2002 wines are aging in barriques.
Rouget pours the Nuits-St.-Georges village, and Jayer holds up the glass against a bare bulb illuminating the cellar. The 2002s are not as dark as his 1999s, he says, but "color doesn't make the quality of Pinot Noir. See the beautiful color. It shines like a ruby."
He tastes the wine. "It's fruity and it persists on the palate. It has good acidity, with good length on the finish." He spits out the wine on the dirt floor.
Will the 2002s age? "Three weeks after the wines were in barrels you felt like filling a pitcher to drink at the table. It's precisely the sort of wine I've always favored. It's good to drink now; you don't have to wait and wait. And don't worry about aging it. I guarantee that our 2002s will age 20 years without problems."
Rouget opens a 1999 Nuits-St.-Georges. It is massive, tough and firm, but with lovely ripe fruit in the midpalate. Jayer eliminated 20 percent of the abundant '99 crop to boost the concentration of the wines, and he considers his '99s more concentrated than these '02s.
The '02 wine tastes silky and subtle, yet also powerful and very long. "The 2002s have more finesse and charm and they are more complete than the 1999s," says Rouget.
"Yes," says Jayer, "the tannins are rounder and better-integrated in '02. They are not aggressive. You taste the 'fat' in the 2002s."
The '02 Échézeaux is also round and elegant. Jayer smells, swirls and drinks it. "I am swallowing that one," he says.