Rebel Aesthetic: the wines of Jean-Marie Guffens

Jean-Marie Guffens supervises the pressing of his 2016 harvest / Gretchen Greer

This article originally appeared in Noble Rot (13). 

Jean-Marie Guffens may have mellowed with age, but he remains a bull in the china shop of his fellow vignerons’ sensibilities. This ruddy faced Belgian-turned-Burgundian is certainly not afraid to shock. ‘When Parker told me I was one of the three best white winemakers in the world, I said to him, “what a pity the other two are so far behind!”’ ‘You know why my neighbours are harvesting too early this year? Because last year they harvested too late!’ Holy cows are slaughtered with relish: his maxim that diminutive winemakers tend to make massive wines is illustrated by reference to none other than Meursault’s Jean-François Coche, and don’t even get him started on Chablis.

Delivered in a lifelong smoker’s baritone roar and inevitably followed by a hearty cackle, remarks like this are simply part of Guffens’ DNA. But much is lost in translation when they make it into print, and one suspects that the offense they cause is only amplified by the fact that his lampoons often contain more than a grain of truth. Many enemies, much honour, as the saying goes. But it’s hard to imagine that decades of ruffled feathers and burnt bridges didn’t play a part in the torturous saga that saw Guffens hounded by the French authorities for allegedly adulterating his Burgundies with wine from the south; charges that were dismissed, but not before they had taken their toll on him and his staff.

Guffens’ penchant for controversial bon mots, moreover, sometimes distracts from the true nature and extent of his achievements. In the beginning, of course, fame came easily, led by a laudatory press. The wines of Domaine Guffens-Heynen and his négociant business Maison Verget were pursued with the peculiar ardour only high scores can generate. ‘I know that you can read, and that you can count to one hundred’, was Guffens’ stock reply to the faxed inquiries which followed every new issue of the Wine Advocate: ‘but if you want to buy my wine, come and visit me’. In time, however, the enthusiasm waned: quoting Guffens risked alienating his rivals, and in any case his cellars in Vergisson are over an hour’s drive to the south of the Côte d’Or where journalists gravitate. Today, Guffens can still boast three coveted stars in the Revue des Vins de France, but the sound-bites, I’m afraid, sometimes risk obscuring the message.

That’s a pity, because Guffens produces some of the most exciting wines in all of Burgundy; whites which unite tension, texture and amplitude in rare harmony. Invariably powerful but never corpulent, strong winemaking signatures—new oak, reduction—are eschewed in favour of terroir expression of exquisite clarity: ‘they’re the definition of what terroir is’, says Éric Texier, who studied with Guffens in the 1990s to observe his methods first-hand: ‘every year, each site has the same identity’. And what makes this achievement especially remarkable is that the terroirs Guffens articulates so precisely are not the famous Premier and Grand Crus of the Côte d’Or but the vineyards  of the Mâconnais, a region long considered a humble country cousin to its nobler relatives to the north.

Just as singular as the wines themselves are the virtuosic methods which produce them. Arriving in Vergisson on a misty early-October morning, I discovered harvest in full-swing—and winemaking at its most instinctive and artisanal. All Guffens’ grapes are harvested by hand, not by machine, a rarity for the region. ‘Have you ever seen the state of machine-harvested grapes? I’m in the business of making wine, not resurrection!’ What’s more, vineyards are rarely harvested all at once: Guffens prefers to make multiple passages —or tries—through the vineyards, harvesting individual blocks and rows as they reach maturity. Harvest is consequently a protracted affair, and a Guffens cuvée is not uncommonly a blend of wine from grapes harvested at 12% alcohol, 15% alcohol, and plenty in between. That’s just one of several ways he captures both volume and vibrancy.

Once the grapes reach the winery, they’re crushed, then pressed in a specially-modified hydraulic Coquard; a common contraption in Champagne, but rare in Burgundy, and one which Guffens prizes for its precision and the pristine juice it liberates. He and his team watch attentively all the while, separating the juice of successive pressings: only the first juice, with its higher acidity, makes it into Domaine Guffens-Heynen’s best bottlings.

The juice then descends to the cellar by gravity—‘which was invented by Isaac Newton’, Guffens quips, satirising fashionable so-called gravity-flow wineries—and into barrels for fermentation. It’s now that the magic happens, because there’s no doubt that this Belgian émigré is a true master of élevage, the art of raising a wine to maturity. Quality, as Guffens is the first to insist, may be determined in the vineyard; but it is realised in the cellar. Both at Domaine Guffens-Heynen and Maison Verget, there are no rules or recipes for élevage and only two real tools.

One of them is the choice of vessel itself—whether oak barrels, new or used, small or large; or tanks of concrete and stainless steel, similarly varying in shape and size. Simply put, the larger and more impermeable the vessel, the fresher the wine will remain: matured in a large stainless steel tank, a wine will taste taut and focussed; in small barrels of porous new oak, it will gain in texture but may tire. Guffens plays with the possible permutations like a master chef: a wine may ferment in small barrels, before being divided into thirds, transferred respectively to oak demi-muids, concrete tank and stainless steel. In due course, the blend invariably surpasses the sum of the parts.

The wines’ lees—as the yeast cells and solid particles which settle out after fermentation are known—are Guffens’ other tool. Lees nourish and protect the wines, contributing texture and complexity while simultaneously scavenging damaging oxygen. Guffens stirs them up at carefully-judged intervals to emphasise those effects—a technique known as battonage. More idiosyncratically, he retains the powerfully reductive first lees or bourbs (which most producers discard), periodically adding doses to the maturing wines as an antioxidant in lieu of less desirable sulphur dioxide.

These methods, like the man who employs them, defy easy characterisation, uniting the traditional and the modern in a formula which varies every year. Guffens’ mastery of technique is complete, but he is not a technical winemaker: it is his aesthetic, not his methods, which indelibly marks his wines. Forty years ago, no one would have imagined that the Mâconnais could produce wines which approach so nearly the apotheosis of Chardonnay, and as Guffens enters his seventh decade, he believes he’s doing the best work of his career. It’s time for the world to rediscover him.

A dive into Domaine Guffens-Heynen’s library / Gretchen Greer

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