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‘Burgundy will drop and it will fall on the Mâconnais’

For one outspoken winemaker, the Mâconnais is Bourgogne’s best place for making fine wines in a warming climate, while the Côte d’Or faces a troubled future.

That’s the view of Jean-Marie Guffens (pictured), the founder of Domaine Guffens-Heynen and Maison Verget in the Mâconnais, who once made wine in Montrachet, but now believes his more southerly home in Bourgogne is “easier to make a balanced wine”.

Infamous in his home region for contrary views, Guffens is considered roguish in Bourgogne, but also worthy of respect for his wines, which are outstanding, not just relative to the whites from the Maconnais, but also the Côte d’Or, or indeed anywhere in the world crafting fine Chardonnay.

Having met and tasted with him last month at Maison Verget, db was struck by the quality of Guffens’ domaine wines, even in a difficult vintage such as 2021, but also his belief in the current and future quality potential of the Mâconnais – an area with a long-held reputation for being a poor person’s Bourgogne blanc.

At the beginning of a tasting with him in July, Guffens, who made his first domaine-wine in 1980 (and founded the négociant Maison Verget in 1990), said, “I find that I can make more interesting wines in the Mâconnais than I can in the Côte d’Or – and I’ve made a lot of wine in the Côte d’Or.”

Continuing he said, “The Côte d’Or is just one slope, but the Mâconnais has many different exposures, and more mineral soils.”

Assuring db that he has “nothing against it,” when referring to the Côte d’Or, he then said, “But for the same price as a bottle of wine from the Côte d’Or you can have six bottles of a good Mâconnais.”

Explaining the positioning of his Bourgogne sub-region as the good-value underdog, he said that the Mâconnais was like the Avis car-rental business, which – as the second-biggest to market-leader Hertz – in the 60s used the ad slogan: ‘We try harder’.

“That’s what we are, we try harder to make great wine,” he said, mentioning the hands-on nature of local vignerons, and prevalence of organic viticulture in the Mâconnais.

But the Mâconnais is also the source of more varied white wines than one finds in the top white-winemaking villages of the the Côte d’Or, according to Guffens.

“I taste blind, and not one taster can tell me which wine is the Meursault, the Puligny or the Chassagne… but in the Mâconnais, you can make so many different styles of wine,” he stated.

“There is so much difference, from wines with high acidity, to those with more sugar; styles of wine you can’t find in the Côte d’Or,” he continued, before quipping, “Do you know what the difference is between a €30 Meursault and a €300 Batard Montrachet? It is €270.”

Cynicism aside, Guffens makes some serious points, justifying his belief in the future of the Mâconnais, an area of rolling countryside, where vineyards are found on steeply-sloping ground mixed among woodland, and sometimes abutting cliffs – notably the hard limestone outcrops of Vergisson and Solutré, which form a dramatic backdrop to the best-known wines of the region: Pouilly Fuissé and Saint Véran.

And it is the varied nature of the terrain, where vineyards can be over 400m in altitude, with a range of aspects, that makes the Mâconnais not only the source of different wine styles today, but a place of refuge, should Bourgogne’s climate continue to warm.

Drawing a further comparison between the Mâconnais and the Côte d’Or, Guffens commented, “It is easier to manage climate change if you there are northern exposures and you can plant at 400m, but it is harder if you have an eastern exposure between 200 and 260m.”

Qualifying his suggestion that all of the Côte d’Or is the same, he added, “The vineyards of Saint-Romain or Saint Aubin have different exposures and that’s why they have better wines than the ‘real’ Côte d’Or.”

Generally, however, the combination of the Côte d’Or’s east-facing slopes and heat-absorbing clay soils, leaves this part of Bourgogne at risk from climate change, in his view.

As a result, he remarked, “Tomorrow, Burgundy will have a drop and it will fall on the Mâconnais”, even though, already, he believes that, “It is easier to make a balanced wine in the Mâconnais,” adding, “The Côte d’Or has too much clay and more sunburn”.

Finally, he expressed his view that while the Mâconnais is gaining in global awareness, it is for the wrong reasons.

“We are only becoming known because there is not enough wine in Burgundy,” he said, alluding to famous names in the Côte d’Or sourcing grapes or buying estates in the Mâconnais.

He’s not opposed to such investments, but expresses frustration at the lowly positioning of the wines from the Mâconnais relative to their equivalents from the famous white wines of the Côte d’Or.

“Of course, it is a good thing to have investment here, but it is not interesting when Leflaive or Lafon make cheap wines here compared to the very expensive ones they make elsewhere, so they can say, ‘let’s taste some Mâconnais before we taste the Puligny’”, he said.

However, he expressed his delight at Maison Louis Jadot’s acquisition of Domaine Ferret in Pouilly Fuissé in 2008, “because they are not here to make cheap Mâcon”, while he also appeared cheered by the recent purchase of Château de Chasselas in Saint-Véran by Domaine Drouhin, commenting, “I’m glad, as they have enough money to restore the estate.”

Concluding, he said, “I’m pleased when producers come to the Mâconnais and sell the wine at higher prices than those who were already here, because the big problem here is that the prices are not high enough, which means you can’t afford to make great wine.”

He then added, “If you sell cheaply, then your dreams about quality are gone, immediately.”

A bit about Domaine Guffens-Heynen

The domaine was founded by Jean-Marie and his wife Maine, who hail from Flanders, but left Belgium in 1976 to learn French and discover wine in Burgundy. Having settled in Vergisson, Jean-Marie studied winemaking while his wife worked for local winegrowers, before the pair took on the role of managing a small wine estate in the Mâconnais.

In 1979, they bought a few plots of vines on the hills of Pierreclos, which they gradually added to, so that today the domaine covers 5.65ha on the hills of Pierreclos, Vergisson and Davayé.

The estate is managed organically, although it is not certified.

In terms of winemaking, the grapes are all hand-harvested “at full maturity”, with Jean-Marie and his team making a series of passes through the vines, picking grapes according to the taste of the berries.

Pressing is done softly in a modified hydraulic Coquard press similar to that used in Champagne, and the juice – after 48 hours settling without clarification – then undergoes fermentation in barrels in a range of sizes without inoculating with yeast. The wines are aged on lees and bottled 18 months later. The Wine Advocate’s William Kelly gives a detailed account of Guffens’ approach to winemaking, which you can read by clicking here.

Domaine Guffens-Heynen, Saint-Veran, Premiers Jus, 2020

Enticingly smoky and tangy aromatically, mixing scents of grapefruit, dill and freshly-struck matchstick. In the mouth, it’s layered and generous, but fresh and dry, even grippy too, with flavours of grilled nuts and fleshy nectarine, followed by juicy lemon and gently bitter grapefruit pith, then a lingering fine chalky taste and texture. If tasted blind, you would think this was a grand cru blanc from the Côte d’Or, with its combination of yellow fruit, nutty richness, tangy freshness and subtly-reductive aromatics. 95 points. (Patrick Schmitt MW, July 2023)

Jean-Marie Guffens says, “Ecocert said my wines were too reduced [for certification], and I asked them, ‘Why, would you throw out the wines of Coche-Dury?’ … you can have [this style of wine] in Meursault, but not in the Mâconnais.”

The wines of Domaine Guffens-Heynan are certainly not inexpensive, with this 2020 vintage of Saint-Veran Premiers Jus selling via Farr Vintners in the UK for £120 a bottle in bond. But a bottle (IB) of Coche-Dury Meursault (to which he draws a comparison) from the same vintage would set you back almost £800.

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