Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Weight of Expectations

The other night a generous friend came over for dinner. He told me earlier in the day that he would bring "an interesting Burgundy to try." That works well because I happen to love Burgundy wine. He arrived and produced a bottle of wine by one of the most famous names in the history of Burgundy, in all of wine, I would say.

I laughed out loud when I saw the wine. I mean really - to have the opportunity to drink a bottle of wine by Henri Jayer is an amazing thing. Jayer started farming vineyards, mostly in Vosne-Romanée, for 50 years or so. He never bottled all that he harvested, as a lot of the land he worked was owned by others, but he of course bottled his own wine too, and it was legendary during his time. Prices went through the roof after Jayer died in 2006. For his top wines - the iconic Crox Parantoux, Richbourg, and Échézeaux - each bottle begins in the thousands. Multiple thousands. This year a case of 1985 Jayer Cros Parantoux sold for, um, $265,200 at auction (more than 22K per bottle for those without a calculator). I was not the person who bought it, in case you were wondering.

Until the other night I had never tasted a wine by Henri Jayer. Most of us haven't, even those of us who were into wine back in the 70's when top Burgundy cost hundreds, not thousands of dollars. There never was very much of the wine. Now that bottles are astronomically priced it's just an unlikely thing, to drink a bottle of Jayer. There are several wines like this that immediately come to mind and sadly, many of them are Burgundy wines.

What would it be like to actually drink one of these wines? Really, try to imagine it for a moment. Someone shocks you with a bottle of Jayer, or something else rare and iconic. Something you otherwise would never have the chance to drink. Something you've heard about, read about, wondered about, and never expected.

There is no question that the experience of drinking such a wine would be glorious. But what about the part where you try to figure out if you like the wine, and how much. What about the part where, regardless of whether or not you like the wine, you try to figure out if it is a good wine.

Wouldn't it be easy for your judgement to be clouded by the fact that you are drinking Henri f*#ing Jayer?!?

I've heard wine pros and other folks too say that their judgement is not clouded in these situations. I believe this but only if that person has the breadth of drinking experience to make this possible. Most of us don't have that kind of experience, and we are only human, are we not? You'd have to be a hater to walk into your first bottle of Jayer and dislike it.

So, my generous friend brought with him a bottle of 1993 Henri Jayer Bourgogne, Jayer's most humble wine. But Jayer, no less. And I will tell you that I loved the wine before it came out of the bottle. Okay, that's not true, but I was definitely all set to love it, so take everything I'm about to say now with a grain of salt.

This was not even close to being one of the top Burgundy wines I've ever had. But it was among the best Bourgogne wines I've had. I think it compared quite favorably to many of the best Villages level wines I've had. It had a delicacy to it that contrasted with the pungent and smoke-inflected flavors. Especially on the second day (my friend left me the bottle!) the wine had this sheer sensation to it, this elegant and lacy texture, and the flavors were more detailed. I wanted to find Vosne spices, but mostly I didn't. Something in the wine, the powerful and almost muscular way the wine delivered its smells and flavors, made me think of Gevrey or Nuits-Saint-Georges.  But I have no idea where the grapes for this wine came from. In the end I really liked the wine, I could tell that it was a very high quality wine, and it was thrilling to drink.

And yet, the next day when I bragged to my friend Peter about drinking this wine, I also said this to him in my email:
Jayer Bourgogne was very good. but a lesson in terroir in that it in the end was Bourgogne, perhaps with some villages fruit in there? But it's hard to make a grand cru wine from Bourgogne site, even if you're Jayer I guess.
Peter wrote back, and as he tends to do, he said something concise and smart that made me want to write this post. He said:
That bottle is too weighed down by expectations. When it was made it was supposed to be a good, easy-drinking yet high-quality wine, like Lafarge Passetoutgrains or Dugat Bourgogne. Now, though, it's expected to be Jayer.
Food for thought.


Anonymous said...

Dear BG,

I'm the anonymous who's uncomfortable with your Burgundy club, but this I like very much! You drill down brilliantly on the phenomenon of Burgundy--the expectations and limitations. Personally, I'm capping my red Burgundy cellar and moving on to other places (mostly Mt. Etna). Just too much money going to too much uncertainty. The payoff is amazing, but the frustrations aren't too far behind.

Adam said...

Similar experience, back in 1989 when my wife and I were in Paris with dinner rezzies at Tour D'Argent. I went to restaurant planning I would drink a Jayer grand cru. Of course, even then, top vintages were out of my budget range so we settled for a less expensive, off vintage Jayer figuring we would be able to appreciate the work of a great winemaker in off vintages..can't remember which particular vintage anymore. Long time. But, I will always remember feeling exactly the point of your post...a good wine, especially in an off vintage, but I was looking for religion because it was Jayer and was left underwhelmed. Indeed the weight of expectations.

keithlevenberg said...

The Jayer mystique arose because in Jayer's day, nobody else was doing what Jayer was doing. You can sort of think of him as one of the pioneering modernists in Burgundy, somewhat comparable to what Gaja was for Piedmont. But now there are a lot of producers that have more or less adopted the Jayer recipe. Obviously not all of them are going to pull it off, and certainly not all of them have terroirs like Richebourg and Cros Parantoux. But if you're lucky enough to drink a Jayer and find yourself wondering why it's not such an amazingly different animal from other Burgundies out there, that perspective might help explain it.

Anonymous said...

Part of what Keith says above is true. But also, what sets Jayer wines apart is very subtle. You need a lot of experience with Burgundy to understand them. Back in the 1980s, I didn't see all that much unique about them. Today I do (and fortunately still have a number of bottles to enjoy.