Henri Jayer, 84; Celebrated Producer of Burgundy Wines

Times Staff Writer

Henri Jayer, the pioneering Burgundian vintner who inspired winemakers around the world, died Wednesday in Dijon, France, after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 84.

Among the most celebrated winemakers in the history of Burgundy, Jayer is closely associated with the storied vineyards of Echezeaux and Richebourg in the Vosne-Romanee appellation. Henri Jayer wines are renowned not only for their balance and elegance but for their lushness and concentration.

Jayer introduced important innovations to winemaking, most significantly the idea of cold-soaking crushed Pinot Noir grapes to bring out the color and flavor of the fruit. Pinot Noir producers around the world now use this technique, also known as cold maceration.

And while today it is accepted that great winemaking begins in the vineyard, it was Jayer who pioneered the idea.


“He was among the first to look at the vineyard as the ultimate source of quality,” said wine critic Allen Meadows, a specialist in Burgundy wines.

In a 2004 interview published in Meadows’ Burghound newsletter, Jayer said, “I prune ruthlessly short. There is no substitute for low yields, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves.”

From his earliest years, Jayer sought to limit the use of chemicals in the vineyards, instead plowing to control weeds.

Today Henri Jayer wines are some of the most sought-after in the world, selling for thousands of dollars per bottle. American wine lovers, attracted to his seductive red Burgundies from the time they first became available in this country in the late 1970s, have been his biggest fans.

Many American Pinot Noir winemakers strive to replicate the richness of Jayer’s wines, said Jim Clendenen, winemaker and owner of Au Bon Climat in Santa Maria, Calif. To Clendenen, the Burgundian vintner was a mentor and friend. “Jayer was a stern, even severe teacher who was unsparing in his criticisms of others,” Clendenen said. “He was also a totally transparent and candid winemaker. He would tell you everything he did. We all loved him.”

Jayer was born into a winegrowing family in Vosne-Romanee, France. In the 1940s, he earned a degree in enology from the University of Dijon. By the 1950s, he was producing wine under his own label. He had inherited a 7.4-acre plot from his family, including parcels of the Echezeaux and Beaux Monts vineyards.

Over the next 20 years, working with the owners of Domaine Meo-Camuzet, Jayer developed Cros Parantoux, a hillside vineyard on inexpensive land ignored by other winemakers. Today it’s being considered for elevation to grand cru status.

In the 1980s, Jayer also managed Domaine Meo-Camuzet’s vineyards, including parcels in the Richebourg, Brulees and Meurgers vineyards, splitting the harvest evenly with the owners.

“Jayer built the equivalent of an empire,” Meadows said, and he did so without ever owning more than a dozen acres of land. “He did it by never missing. In horrible vintages, he never made bad wine. And that’s hard to say in Burgundy, where a bad year can be dreadful.”

“America made his reputation,” said his U.S. importer, Martine Saunier. At a time when no one in France or England was particularly interested in Jayer’s wines, Saunier said she brought barrel samples of his 1978 vintage to Los Angeles for retailers to taste. “Everyone was crazy about the wine,” she said. “The intensity, the purity -- they were different than other Burgundies. And they were an instant success here.”

Jayer made very little wine, only a few thousand cases in any given year. In 1987, he reduced the number by half when he lost his lease on the Meo-Camuzet vineyards.

Seven years later, Jayer began winding down his career, transferring vineyards to his nephew, Emmanuel Rouget. The 2001 vintage was his last.

Jayer is survived by his wife, Marcelle Jayer; two daughters; and two grandchildren.

The funeral service is to be held Tuesday in Vosne-Romanee.