Refusing to Follow the Script: Jean-Marie Guffens


The Cut-Price Wedding

Let me tell you two things about my nuptials. First, our entire budget was a fraction of most couples’ expenditure on flowers alone because neither bride nor groom had two pennies to rub together. The catering came courtesy of supermarket Marks & Spencer, the wedding dress was sewn together by a nimble-fingered friend, and the reception was held at Leigh-on-Sea Sailing Club, in a first-floor bar with beer-dappled, threadbare carpet and Formica tables that looked funereal should a puff of cloud blemish the sky.

Second, it was one of the best weddings ever – 100 points.

Having serendipitously chosen the sunniest weekend of 2005, we were gifted a glorious vista across a yawning estuary teeming with seagulls and kamikaze kite-surfers. The DJ moved his wheels of steel onto the outside deck, which was immediately packed with friends and family linked arm in arm, wailing like strangled cats to Jefferson Starship’s irresistible “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” The M&S prawn sandwiches were wolfed down, and the congregation, sweltering in the summer heat, naturally slaked their thirst with wine. This resulted in inebriation on an epic scale. For sure, the fermented grape juice had been cheap, but boy, was it delicious. And now, today, the man who made that fermented grape juice was sitting opposite me, 14 years, 5 months and no more marriages later.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, may I present to you the irascible, the indefatigable, the one and only Jean-Marie Guffens-Heynen.

I fell in love with Guffens’ wines during the salad days of my wine career. The catalyst was a winemaker dinner at Ransom’s Dock in the late 1990s. How the audience gasped at the unrepeatable anecdotes and the spray-graffiti of expletives! Guffens has always been a walking, talking exclamation point. But playing the enfant terrible makes you look a fool if not backed up with wines that deliver.

Guffens’s wines do not deliver. No, they over-deliver. They represent some of the best value-for-money wines not just in Burgundy, but in France.

I have vague recollections of visiting Guffens’ winery in Vergisson many moons ago; subsequently, I tasted and reviewed his new releases regularly. But it had been eons since I sat down with Guffens himself or tasted mature bottles. I got the chance to do both when Farr Vintners, his UK distributor, hosted an unprecedented retrospective that spanned three decades. It included mature bottles both from his domaine and under the label of Maison Verget, his négociant arm founded in 1990 to cater for his growing ambitions, as well as verticals of cuvées chosen by Guffens, his forays into Chablis and the Côte d’Or, and his one-off tribute to a certain band that wisely changed their name from The Screaming Abdabs. What kind of Guffens we would meet? On the sliding scale of good to bad behavior, how bad would he be?

Guffens, looking as if he is about to launch into a Nigel Farage impersonation.

That Crazy Belgian (Roy Batty Blues)

It’s good to see him again. He’s exactly as I remember. His curls are greyer and his cheeks ruddier, his mischievous face spelling T.R.O.U.B.L.E. Yet I find him, as ever, congenial and garrulous. Though typically he plays it cool, underneath I sense he is looking forward to this showcase, and to giving his two cents about the wines and anything else that eructs from his mind.

The first salvo is unleashed while I am still getting comfortable in my chair: “My problem is that when I get drunk I say what I mean, and when I get very drunk, I say what I don’t mean.” At the moment, Guffens is not drunk. Or at least I don’t think he is. Maybe he had a cheeky sharpener? You can never tell. Today he is clearly going to say what he means.

Guffens’s rise has been well documented over the years, and was propelled in no small part by the man from Monkton. “In 1983 the importer Peter Vezan presented my 1982s to Robert Parker,” he recalled. “Parker wrote about a ‘crazy Belgian’ who makes Mâcon as good as Puligny-Montrachet. I wrote him a letter and I told him that I wasn’t pleased. Two weeks later he came to my home, and I told him: ‘Do you know how much rubbish is made in Puligny? I don’t need a standard.’”

I am intrigued how Guffens became a winemaker. Unaware of any family heritage, I always presumed happenstance; I only knew that in 1976 he and his wife Maine, also attending this tasting, relocated to France. At lunch I caught him alone for a moment and inquired. After an uncharacteristic pause, he replied: “I wanted to be an actor or an architect. My acting teacher was the mother of Rutger Hauer...” Presumably this was in Amsterdam. “I remember that I was playing Chekhov. My teacher told me that I would be no good as an actor. She told me that actors are stupid because they just follow their lines and that I didn’t. She said that I needed to be my own man. So I joined the army to do my national service, but got kicked out within three hours for exhibitionism. I spoke several languages except French, so I decided to spend a year in France, and I never came back.”

I mused upon this revelation, this tenuous link between sci-fi classic Blade Runner and Jean-Marie Guffens. Roy Batty, the replicant brilliantly played by Rutger Hauer, is the polar opposite of Guffens. Guffens’s words tumble from his mouth like an unruly mob; Batty’s every word is premeditated and enunciated with poetic eloquence. Imagine an alternate timeline where Guffens pursued his acting career and ended up in Hauer’s role, delivering the career-defining “tears in rain” monologue. Do glittering C-beams enhance photosynthesis? Is there terroir beyond the Tannhäuser Gate? Replicant Guffens would have had the answers. Replicant Guffens would have let Deckard plummet to his death rather than granting him redemption.

The 1980 and 1981 crops were sold off after the kind of malevolent growing season that pours doubt on your choice of career, so 1982 was Guffens’s first bona fide vintage, although even then he was not entirely happy because the yields were too high.

Bees in Bonnets

We broached the first flight, a vertical of Mâcon-Pierreclos Tri de Chavigne from 2013 back to 1997. This highly respected vineyard is situated on the steep slopes above the village of Pierreclos. “The first vineyard that we bought from, nobody wanted it. It was too steep and unknown,” Guffens explained. “We always took [the fruit] that other people didn’t want. It is much more enjoyable to make things that don’t exist. I can’t make great wines in, say, Meursault, because I can’t make it my way. This flight is a wine that comes from nowhere."

Guffens seems to have a bee in his bonnet about Meursault. He mentions it two or three times in riling disposition, offering just one example of his contrarian, recalcitrant nature. Winemakers habitually covet vines grown in the most historical and prestigious vineyards, but Guffens prefers to utilize less fashionable vineyards, or pull newly invented cuvées from a top hat. Ta-da! Drink this! Perhaps that explains why his foray into the Côte d’Or did not last. For certain, the fruit became too expensive for him to justify without increasing prices, something he is reluctant to do. But another factor was his dislike of conformity, and of playing by the rules of an anonymous authority that does not know one end of a vine from the other. Think back to the comparison Parker made to Puligny-Montrachet: it was intended as a compliment but received as a misinterpretation of what drives Guffens. He wants to make great Mâconnais wines, not Meursault or Puligny wannabes.

Anyway, back to the Tri de Chavigne. “In some vintages it is not made, and sometimes the gap between passes through the vineyard can be up to four weeks.” Indeed, Guffens is well known for his fastidious approach to picking in a region where many continue to harvest by machine. Guffens uses his own harvesters to pick the fruit when he decides it is the right time. “The Premier Cru Jus de Chavigne [made in 2003 and 2006] comes from one part of Chavigne. I had to pick it, otherwise the alcohol would have been too high.”

The infamous hot summer of 2003 was not ideal for growing Chardonnay in Mâconnais. Guffens was asked about his recollections of that year. “We can’t go on holiday because we are poor in Mâconnais,” he answered, passing around the begging bowl, “so we are in the vineyard. [That year] we started picking on August 18 and we had finished by the end of the month. During the canicule [intense heat wave], the vines had no stress and the wines underwent no acidification. I’m an early picker when everyone picks late and a late picker when people pick early. Never be scared of the grapes you have. If the grapes are overripe, so be it. I prefer botrytis to dilution. Grapes do not become ripe by the sun but by botrytis."

This couldn’t-give-a-toss attitude has almost become Guffens’s calling card, but it belies a winemaker who, from where I am standing, does care. Does that mean his “rebel without a cause” shtick is an act? I don’t think so. That’s just the way he is. Cocky. A wind-up merchant. A provocateur. That said, the unrequited actor in Guffens does surface sometimes. While we were tasting his 1995 Chablis Valmur, and for reasons I fail to recall, he launched into a spot-on impression of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s classic film The Seventh Seal. Bergman would have approved.

We have discussed the infamous 2003 vintage. How about a growing season that in the eyes of many produced a surfeit of great wines? Broaching his 2009 Saint-Véran Clos de Poncetys, he bluntly opined that he doesn’t care for the 2009s. What does he mean? Everybody flippin’ loves the 2009s! “They taste of 2009,” he explained. Well, I guess they do. But Guffens seeks to express the patch of dirt where his vines come from and dislikes growing seasons that blur or erase it. (Does that not contradict the idea of just accepting the grapes that nature gives you?)

As the tasting progresses, Guffens becomes more animated and gesticulates more and more. He is in full flow. Better batten down the hatches, for his unalloyed opinions are coming thick and fast: his dislike for the money that now swills around wine, reducing it to a rich person’s plaything; then a shrug of his shoulders when asked about the eagerly awaited introduction of Premier Cru Mâconnais. So what? Guffens was a close friend of the late Loire winemaker Didier Dagueneau but loathes Sauvignon Blanc. Another thing that Guffens is not keen on is the modern-day wine press. “I use a vertical press in order to keep the acidity high and the pH low. Today there are many very good presses and you don’t see anything. You just press a button.” He was one of the first winemakers to use ScrewCap at a time when French winemakers associated it with cheap wine, and in 2010 he commenced using Diam.

Atom Heart Mother

Can I change the subject? I’m going to change the subject, so bear with me.

Above the ululating playground screams and cries in the final days of the Seventies, you could hear snotty-nosed urchins chanting the earworm chorus of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2).” “We don’t need no, educa-shun/We don’t need no fought [sic] control.”  It was sung with all the measly menace a nine-year-old scallywag could muster - our first act of rebellion against the education system. At that tender age, my knowledge of Pink Floyd was nonexistent beyond this chorus. I had never heard their magnum opus The Dark Side of the Moon, or Atom Heart Mother, an album whose cover art is arguably more recognized than the music itself. Guffens regards the latter as such a masterpiece that he named his 2002 Saint-Véran Terres Noires in its honor. Sadly, the label is bovine-less. “I made just one new barrel that was never commercialized,” Guffens explained. “It actually comes from the lieu-dit of Côte-Rôtie and it contained no SO2, which makes it one of the first natural wines. Not that this was my intention.”

Ever the wine writer who delivers more information than readers know what to do with, I’ll mention that Pink Floyd wanted the cover of Atom Heart Mother to be as mundane as possible. The Friesian was called Lulubelle III and the farmer tried and failed to pursue EMI for royalties. In the UK, Atom Heart Mother reached number one, unlike The Dark Side of the Moon. Check if you don’t believe me.

But what inspired him to name it after that particular album? Why not Ummagumma?

“At the time, I felt that we are atoms and we come from our mother and this made me think of Pink Floyd,” he replied. I was unsure whether anyone knew what he was talking about, but I didn’t ask him to elucidate. Are any members of Pink Floyd aware of the wine’s existence? David Gilmour is an oenophile when not noodling on his Fender. I once sat at the table next to his at The River Café, and I espied him choosing extremely well, so who knows? Guffens said he’d heard that drummer Nick Mason has sampled the wine. (I don’t know whether Nick Mason is a wine lover, as I’ve never sat next to him in a restaurant.) Guffens also noted that all his other cuvées do include sulfur, but the smallest amount possible. As far as I am aware, Pink Floyd albums were all made without sulfur, though I suspect Syd Barrett might have ingested some while recording The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Broaching the flight of wines from the Côte d’Or, I had the sense of Guffens outside his home territory. He was on someone else’s turf and he didn’t like it. One continual problem was that he would sign a contract with a vineyard owner and then, after the press lauded his wine, the owner would take umbrage at someone stealing his glory and refuse to renew the contract. The selection of cuvées concentrates on banner vineyards: Corton-Charlemagne, Bâtard-Montrachet and even a Montrachet. These are well-crafted wines that showed well, and yet I cannot help feeling that they are missing the vital spark that makes Guffens’s Mâconnais wines so special. Even the Montrachet is just okay; it doesn’t translate into a magical crossing of Guffens and this Grand Cru. Guffens also branched out into Chablis, a region that I feel he has more affection for. (Incidentally, just before filing this piece, I happened to sit next to winemaker Patrick Piuze at a dinner in London, where Piuze told me that he was in charge of making Guffens’s Chablis wines in the early 2000s.) Anyway, the good thing about scores is that they cannot lie. Therefore those that, in Guffens’s own words, can “count up to one hundred,” can be assured that I find many of his Mâconnais cuvées more interesting and complex than these expensive Grand Crus. Frankly, I think Guffens does too.

Some of the mature Mâconnais bottles formed the high points of this tasting.

Final Thoughts

This comprehensive tasting confirmed Jean-Marie Guffens as a winemaker par excellence. He has the magic touch that you cannot learn from a book. He is not averse to breaking rules and yet sometimes, even against my own expectations, his wines are simply fantastic. On the other hand, Guffens is not infallible; some wines at this tasting tripped over their shoelaces. But they were clearly in the minority, and this is all the more impressive when you consider that our purview was mature bottles that in another’s hands would have fallen by the wayside. After all, we are not discussing Grand Crus, but humble Mâconnais vineyards that tend to be guzzled within a couple of years. Don’t be afraid to stick a couple of them away in your cellar – you might be pleasantly surprised.

The traditional lineup of empty bottles after more than 50 wines were tasted.

Guffens never became a successful actor because he could not follow a script – and so he became a winemaker who could not follow a script. How perverse that a man with a trenchant dislike for rules ended up in a country whose wine industry is hidebound by them. His career has been spent rubbing people the wrong way, whether it is fellow winemakers, the press or business partners. The one constant throughout has been the quality of his wines. However much you might disagree with his views or smart at his opinions, you cannot argue when you take that first sip. Then factor in that these wines continue to be sold at prices that embarrass those asked for a swath of white burgundy, and – to use one of Parker’s expressions – it’s a no-brainer.

My nuptials proved that you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a great, memorable wedding; it’s about using what you’ve got. This is how Guffens operates. He does not need a prestigious vineyard – just give him some decent vines with decent terroir and he will turn out a delicious and occasionally profound wine. Guffens’ acting teacher quickly identified his personality, rebellious nature, inability to keep still and aversion to being told what to do. Scripts are useless for Jean-Marie Guffens. Only fate could ultimately determine his career –  which happened to be in wine –  much to the benefit of the Mâconnais. Long may the bad boy continue making mischief.

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