I hate writing this text. While I was tasting at the Decanter World Wine Awards in early May, a friend emailed to say that Jean-François (Jef) Izarn of Borie la Vitarèle in St Chinian had been killed on his tractor. Any accidental, premature death is always tragic, but this one seems to me unusually bitter.
Jean-François (Jef) Izarn, credit: Jean-Luc Bonnin
I thought Jef was one of the Languedoc’s ten finest winegrowers. Indeed shortly before leaving for London I’d bought six bottles of his 2012 Les Crès, one of which is now standing dolefully on the desk in front of me.
I guess a great bottle is the memorial every winemaker would choose – but we should have had many more from Jef, and I’m convinced they would have got better and better. I’d first visited him when I was researching The New France. He cooked me lunch, I remember, and showed me the bonsai trees he loved growing. He was an excellent chef – and cooking well is perfect ground work for making fine wine.
I visited him again last year – and the promising young winemaker I remembered from 2001 had blossomed into an outstanding one. In addition to the three soil-differentiated cuvées he had always made (Le Crès from pebbles, La Terre Blanche from limestone and Les Schistes from schist), he was now also producing a truly ambitious wine made from selected Syrah and Carignan grown at over 400m on that schist, blended with selected Syrah and Mourvèdre grown on the pebble soils. The fruit was picked over berry by berry, and it was both vinified and aged in demi-muids. Its perfumed, ‘stone essence’ style reminded me of a kind of Languedoc translation of Priorat. Jef called it (with typical Languedoc irony) Midi Rouge. He also showed me the white he had just created, though it wasn’t yet on sale: the 2012 Grand Mayol. He’d grown it on cool, west-facing parcels; it was an unusual blend of Rolle, Chenin, Bourboulenc and Clairette. Orchard fruits and a bracing, crunchy, almost Jurançon Sec-like balance, quite different from most white St Chinians.
He was still quietly trimming his bonsai, painting and taking photographs; he loved music and poetry, too. He and his wife Cathy were great travellers, and had plans to do a lot more; they’d just been to Peru when he died. It’s beyond proof, of course, but I suspect that an artistic spirit and a sensitive apprehension of the world beyond regional and national borders also helps in the creation of great wine. Wine is culture as well as agriculture.
None of this had been easy. They’d inherited the bulk of the domain from Cathy’s father – in title alone, since he had been so indebted that they had had to buy the land back from the bank. Those bank debts were now paid. The cellar had been renovated. The biodynamically cultivated vineyards were impeccably tended. They owned the wild land around the vineyards, too, and the interplay of vines and garrigue had a sweet felicity which must (I felt against all logic) imprint itself on the wines.
Accidents of this sort are a familiar risk in the wine world. Great wine often begins life on hill slopes. Jef had been working some of his steepest vineyards, and he’d taken his caterpillar tractor with him to do that, loaded onto a trailer behind the ordinary tractor. Going down a steep slope, the weight of the two pushed the tractor out of Jef’s control. He jumped for safety at that point but, tragically, it toppled as he did so. He was crushed under one of the large rear wheels.
Cathy plans to carry on – with the domain’s workers, with the help from other local growers which is always forthcoming under these circumstances, with consultant Claude Gros. Coincidentally, I had written about my 2013 visit in my column in last May’s Decanter magazine, discussing the many ways in which wine reflects, records and reconciles us to the passing of time. I’d confidently looked forward to meeting up again with Jef in another ten years or so, and resuming that decade with him. Now I know, wretchedly, we won’t. Now I feel less reconciled.
Written by Andrew Jefford