Tuesday, 16th March 2010 by Stephen Browett
Last week Tom, Oliver and I spent a day in Burgundy visiting our most important supplier there, Jean-Marie Guffens. Jean-Marie was once described (by Robert Parker no less) as being "the world's greatest Chardonnay wine-maker" and a visit to his Verget cellars is always one of the highlights of our year.
Jean-Marie is one of the very few famous Belgians. Try and name another 10, it's not easy. Tintin and Hercule Poirot don't count by the way. He left his native Flanders in 1976, aged 22, to learn French and discover wine. After studying viticulture in the agricultural college in Davayé, Jean-Marie and his wife Maine became managers of a small estate and by 1979 they could afford to purchase some small vineyards. Domaine Guffens-Heynen was born. Today it covers 5.3 hectares and is without doubt the greatest Domaine in all of the Maconnais. Guffens-Heynen Macons and Pouilly-Fuissés have beaten famous names from the Côtes de Beaune in countless blind tastings and regularly receive scores in the 90's from the leading critics. The Domaine remains a tiny, "hand-made" affair with miniscule production levels and 100% barrel elevage. The barrel cellar is smaller than the Farr Vintners tasting room!
In 1990 Jean-Marie established Verget with Jean Rijckaert (who left in 1998) and burst onto the international scene with the fabulous 1992 vintage. Verget was the first of a new style of "negociant". No vineyards are owned but the company selects and picks its own grapes from the vineyards of many small growers spread between Macon in the South and Chablis in the North. Jean-Marie enjoys the freedom that this allows and if he doesn't feel that a vintage is good enough he simply doesn't buy the grapes. He was, for example, convinced that 2007 was a poor year in Chablis - "crap" was how he described it - and the grape prices were too high on the back of the successful 2005s and 2006s. He didn't produce a single bottle and is now delighted that the great 2009 vintage has come along which offers him outstanding quality fruit at considerably lower prices.
Farr Vintners started buying Verget wines (back in 1995) in order to get our hands on their Meursaults, Pulignys and Chassagnes. Yet it cannot be denied that Verget's best value for money offerings are from Macon, Saint Veran, Pouilly Fuissé and Chablis. These now make up the bulk of our purchases.
Jean-Marie's skills as a wine-maker were illustrated by a trip round the Verget cellars. His approach is both traditional and modern. Techniques that you won't find in other Burgundy cellars are used here - batonnage by nitrogen for example - and the fermentation and maturation of wines in a large variety of vessels. At Verget you will find new small oak casks, older wood barrels, wooden foudres, stainless steel, fibreglass, concrete tanks etc etc. Jean-Marie adapts the vinification to suit the fruit so that a Premier Cru Chablis might be fermented in small oak barrels to add complexity but then aged in concrete tanks to avoid any oaky character in the wine. A Pouilly Fuissé might be divided up so that a third of it is elevaged in new oak, a third in large barrels and a third in stainless steel. Like a master chef, the recipes are tweaked here and there and the resultant wine is blended to give exactly the right amount of richness and structure. We are also delighted that Verget have agreed to bottle most of the wines that we buy from them under Stelvin screwcaps. Premature oxidation is one of the biggest problems for white Burgundy today and this seems to have been eliminated with the use of the screwcap. Farr Vintners was proud to be the first UK merchant ever to sell a Grand Cru Burgundy (Corton Charlemagne 2003) under screwcap.
Having bought very little 2007 vintage, we were pleased to discover how well the 2008's are progressing and are now able to offer on open sale small quantities of the Domaine Guffens-Heynen Macon Pierreclos en Chavigne (which is normally sold on allocation only). Even better news is that 2009 is going to be a spectacular vintage in Burgundy - Jean-Marie believes that it will certainly be the best since 2002. We have placed our orders (under Stelvin of course) and will be offering the wines later this year.