Henri Jayer, one of Burgundy's most revered winemakers, died Sept. 20 in Dijon, France, at age 84, after a long battle with prostate cancer. In many ways, Jayer was the epitome of a Burgundy vigneron, producing a small amount of exquisite Pinot Noir from tiny parcels of top vineyards.
"He was a warm man, who didn't tolerate any nonsense, but always had a twinkle in his eye," said Martine Saunier, Jayer's U.S. importer for more than 30 years. "After his retirement, he loved passing knowledge on to a younger generation."
Jayer was born in and spent most of his life in the village of Vosne-Romanée, where his father Eugène owned several small vineyard parcels. In 1939, the 17-year-old Jayer quit school to help his father after his two older brothers were drafted for World War II and then sent to work in German labor camps. In 1942, Henri married Marcelle Rouget, who had picked grapes for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and would become his partner in the vineyards.
His career took its first big leap in 1945, when he signed a 10-year contract with the Noirot-Camuzet family to cultivate several of their plots in premier and grand cru vineyards and make the wines. In return, Jayer took 50 percent of the grapes for his own label.
Jayer also began adding to his own parcels, eventually owning 16 acres divided among top vineyards such as Échézeaux and Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux.
His winemaking was rather traditional at first, and he sold much of the wine he made to négociants. But beginning in the 1950s he refined his techniques, striving for incredibly low yields in his vineyards and avoiding use of fertilizers. In the winery, he employed five- to seven-day cold macerations, followed by long fermentations with native yeasts in small cement tanks. The wines were then aged in 100-percent new oak and bottled by hand, unfiltered. The results were pure and concentrated.
"Henri was a master of his profession," said Jacky Rigaux, author of a biography on Jayer, published in France. "He knew which modern techniques to combine with traditional practices. No matter what the vintage, his wines distinguished themselves from those of his neighbors."
In 1978, Jayer bottled a single-vineyard wine from Cros Parantoux, the tiny premier cru vineyard toward the top of the hill above Vosne-Romanée. It won him acclaim, particularly in the United States, and his small production--he never made more than 300 cases of Cros Parantoux--was forever in demand after that. "America brought him fame," said Saunier. "The French didn't know him yet."
Age didn't stop him, though it did trim his workload. In 1987, a younger member of the Camuzet family took over winemaking for what is now Domaine Méo-Camuzet, allowing Jayer to focus solely on his own plots. In 1996, after the French government informed him that he must retire or lose his pension, Jayer rented out most of his vineyards to his nephew, Emmanuel Rouget. He kept less than 1 acre of Cros Parantoux for himself.
In actuality, as Wine Spectator discovered the next year, Jayer was still making half of the wine bottled under Rouget's name. Jayer didn't quit for good until 2002, and even after that he was on hand to help out. "Je suis un vieux routiner, I am an old fox," he said in a 2004 interview.
Jayer is survived by his wife, Marcelle, and his two daughters.