Throughout my 20 plus years of working as a wine guy, I have been fortunate to taste some amazing wines - wines that I could never afford to buy or acquire. No matter the price or the accolades, I have always tried to approach wine humbly, unpretentiously and with the proverbial grain of salt.
I have never really been tempted by or participated in the commercialized aspects of the business: auctions; I look at wine in the broad context of history, culture, its origins, the making processes and, most importantly, in the social spectrum of human interactions. Without derision or belittlement, I like to say that wine, after all, is a fermented grape juice. Fermented grape juice that has been a major part of my personal and professional life and the accompaniment to some of the best moments of my adulthood. The wine’s appeal lies in the beholder’s sensory experience and should not be considered precise and absolute, but liberatingly subjective. What you like is yours, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
There are wines permanently engrained into my life by the sheer impact of their taste. Two of them stand out through the fact of managing to bring me to tears. Yes, I cried tears of exultation twice while drinking a wine. In both instances, it happened at my old job at Rubicon restaurant, where some of the world’s best wines were accessible.
In both cases, it was also a rather embarrassing spectacle of unexpected outbursts of visceral emotions. Other people were present (in one case, the witnesses were guests at the restaurant), and they looked on with confused expressions on their faces, attempting to show empathy, but at the same time not understanding why they should. What were the wines, you ask? Chateau Rayas 1990 Rouge was one, the other: Henri Jayer’s Cros-Parantoux 1978. The former was 100 percent Grenache from Rhône Valley, the latter was 100 percent Pinot Noir from Burgundy.
Aside from the magic, what else could there be that sets these two wines apart from many others? For starters, both wines were blessed with spectacular vintages in their respective regions. As Henri Jayer said himself, “1978 was one of the most beautiful vintages I vinified. Undoubtedly, one of the best in the century.” Fair enough, but other wineries made wines in those years as well, and some of them were spectacular. I have tasted a few of them as well, and there was pleasure, but no tears. Somehow those two wines tapped into the deep recesses of my psyche and tickled my soul like no other.
But let’s take a look at the other factors that may have contributed to the outstanding quality of these wines.
The godfather of Burgundy, Henri Jayer, was born in 1922 in the small town of Vosne-Romanée, where some of the best Pinot Noir wines come from. He studied at the University of Dijon, where he earned a degree in enology. He passed away in November of 2006. Humble and unassuming, the man has left an indelible mark on the region of Burgundy. Jayer’s winemaking principles have been adopted by many who followed, his legacy continues to inspire, and his wines stand out as the Holy Grail of winemaking achievements. From his first vintage in 1945, until his last bottling in 2001, Jayer was an avid believer that the quality of wines begins and is mainly influenced by the vineyards’ meticulous care. Healthy grapes rigorously selected, low yields and harvesting at the optimum ripeness were the staples of his farming philosophy. When it came to vinification, he believed in extended maceration, full destemming, the use of ambient (natural) yeasts, followed by no filtration. Jayer was a pioneer of cold soak technique, which prevented spontaneous fermentation and increased his wines’ aromatic and textural complexity. All these practices were novel at the time, frowned upon and treated with skepticism by Henri’s peers. But the results were irrefutable. The wines were highly concentrated with complex and multi-layered flavors, remarkable typicity of the terroir and impressive aging potential.
It is the Premier Cru vineyard of Cros-Parantoux that belongs arguably to Jayer’s most sought-after wines. Coming from a tiny parcel of land at 1.01 hectares, the wines’ production has always been minuscule. The vineyard was in a pitiful state after World War II, and it was Jayer who brought it back to life, turning it into one of the greatest sources of Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy, often outshining some of the illustrious Grand Cru bottlings. The wines’ scarcity, combined with the legendary quality, has deemed it to be one of the world’s most coveted and expensive wines. 750ml size bottles of Jayer’s Cros-Parantoux can fetch upward of $20,000.
Then there is Chateau Rayas. Located in France’s Southern Rhone region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rayas stands out among other appellation domains for numerous reasons. Its story started in the 1880s when the winery was purchased by Albert Reynaud and has remained in the family’s hands ever since. Over the years, the winery has acquired additional land, standing at 30 acres under vines nowadays.
The winery’s hey-days are considered the 1970s, 80s and 90s, with Jacques Reynaud at the helm. His reputation as an evasive and eccentric, but a brilliant winemaker has been a topic of many often hilarious stories. He used to hide, literally, in the bushes from wine critics and importers who desperately tried to visit the property and meet him. No road signs and no Internet reception still make the winery impossible to find in this deeply rural part of the country. The winery has always resisted technological advances—even operating without electricity for the longest time. The word primitive comes to mind when looking at the property. Still today, the building’s rough stone walls are bare, covered in cobwebs and glistening from must and moss. The barrels seem ancient with stains, discolorations and looking in desperate need of repair. The newest barrels are said to be around 30 years old. Just like in the case of Jayer, the wines of Rayas are unfiltered and unrefined. Red Rayas is composed of 100 percent Grenache, very unusual for the region’s preference for blends. Grenache is the dominant grape, but Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and a few others often find their way into the mix.
The microclimate and terroir are unique as well. The soil is mainly composed of red sand, limestone and clay rather than rocks and pudding stones dominant in other parts of the region. Surrounded by pine trees, Rayas is in one of the coolest areas of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, making it one of the last wineries to harvest. That allows for the optimal ripeness of the grapes with naturally low alcohol potential and purity of flavor. The wines are sublime, with perfume-like aromas of raspberry, kirsch, sandalwood and lavender dominating. Notes of truffles, forest-bed-after-rain and a touch of dustiness fill the gaps. The wine lingers forever, with new nuances unveiling on and on. There is a white Rayas of a minuscule production of an average of 425 cases a year and composed of an unusual blend of Clairette and Grenache Blanc. Its alluring aromas and structure gave it the nickname Montrachet of the Rhone Valley.
The Jayer label is not produced anymore. The vineyards were passed on to Henri’s nephew Emmanuel Rouget who studied under his uncle, and his wines are of remarkable quality. Chateau Rayas is now in the hands of Jacque Reynaud’s nephew, also Emmanuel, who, after a few difficult years, managed to regain control and bring back the luster to the name Rayas.
It so happened that the wines that moved me to the point of tears are now expensive. As a matter of fact, they are awfully expensive. It was not so at their inception, in the years of their releases. Even at the time when I drank them in the early 2000s, they cost a fraction of their present price tag.
Sometime in the future, the demand and their scarcity will make them unobtainable until the last bottle is opened and drunk, and I will always remember the days I was fortunate enough to be able to taste wines that no longer will be.
By: Cezar Kusik, Sommelier and wine contributor