I first came across the wines of Verget, working at Oddbins in Colchester. It was the early to mid 2000’s, and I had moved to Colchester to be with my girlfriend. Colchester, once the capital of Roman Britain, is one of the oldest settlements in the UK. Colchester is also home to the great wine merchant Lay and Wheeler, the 16th Air Assault Brigade, the warrior Queen Boudica, Colchester United Football Club and battalions of Essex lads and lasses. It was also the true beginning of my wine education.
Verget was one of those producers who sat quietly on the shelf, perhaps not entirely appreciated by the locals. From time to time, I would dust off a bottle for a wine tasting, invariably into the mix as the “value buy” Burgundy. And never did they disappoint. The wines of the Macon were less expensive, they still are, less exciting, but certainly in the case of Verget, fantastically well made, uniquely Macon, always interesting to taste, a joy to drink, and more to the point; most of us could afford them.
Verget, and any wine made by Jean-Marie Guffens is testament to the fact that terrior is not just about soil, and rocks, and rainfall and aspect. It’s about the maker as much as anything else. The wines were always distinctly Macon, never tripping into the vagaries of copy. White Burgundies they may be, but never did I taste a wine that was imitation Puligny, Meursault or Chassagne. These are wines that could only come from the Macon, draped in finery and grandeur without deference, shyness or inhibition.
A note on vintages
It can be hard to go past the verisimilitude of vintage reports and critic points. Numbers are their common bond, but numbers can only go so far in illuminating the truth of your sensory perceptions and the emotional responses some wines may garner. The wines of Guffens-Heynen and Verget almost invariably illicit an emotional response, hence the valueless nature of points and generalisations necessary in vintage reports.
Jean-Marie’s wines reflect the true nature of the vintage, the vintage’s best aspects and the realities of the season. Warm vintages will remind you of the sun on your shoulders and the more agreeable aspects to your nature; whilst cooler years will harden your resolve, stiffening sinews and summoning up the blood.
At the risk of being wildly, almost willfully generalised; the last three vintage releases (2016, 2017 and 2018) are all totally different. Whites from 2016 possess intense profiles, chiselled frames and high acidity. They can be awkward in their youth, benefiting greatly with time in the glass and better still, time in the depths of your cellar. 2017 is the most ‘classic’ vintage of the three, although I believe it is becoming harder to use such an epithet. The wines have a greater volume of fruit than 2016, more warmth if you will, but with the balancing thrust and drive that will ensure long ageing.
If 2018 is a ‘canary in the coalmine’ vintage due to the hot, dry and early nature of the vintage, then it is clear from some of the wine tasted, that the sun shining unleashed a ravishing beauty that has never been witnessed before. It is perhaps not unchartered territory as we have seen many warm vintages recently and of course the heatwave vintage of 2003.
We holidayed in France that year and I can honestly say it was the hottest 3 weeks of my life. The days were unbelievably hot, and there was no cooling in the evening. Without respite, we resorted to placing our bed mattresses in the downstairs living room, directly on the tiles; anything to try to keep cool.
We purchased Bordeaux En Primeurs of that year, to remember our time and the record breaking vintage. Remarkably, the wines were fresh, and aged very well. My only regret is that we drank them too quikly, impatient, worried about the heat sapping future energies.
The vintage of 2018 was hot and dry. The key difference with 2003, were the winter rains, thank goodness, for without them, the vintage would have been a disaster. Instead, without disease to contend with and with good stocks of water, yields were abundant and the wines are, quite naturally, sunkissed.
The success of 2018
Some readers will be familiar with other vintage reports and the generalisations naturally anchor the mind. Burgundy is the region of the producer as much as the vineyard, or anything else. If you are in any doubt about the quality and ageworthiness of Guffens’ 2018s, don’t be. I know of no other producer in Burgundy who is able to run with the insensibilties and caliginous nature of any vintage and accept nature’s providence. The endgame for any wine producer, must be perfection. But not the perfection of 100 points. The perfection of a season, whether it be cool or warm, dry or wet, or whatever.
Steven Spurrier wrote of a tasting of Guffens’ wines, including one from 2003, the first contemporary ‘heatwave vintage’. His perceptions are worth remembering with the 2018’s under consideration. I have included his entire writing, as it serves as a perfect window into the heart of Domaine Guffens-Heynen and the wines of Verget:
FROM THE CELLAR
Domaine Guffens-Heynen, Premier Jus des Hauts de Vignes, Pouilly-Fuisse 2003
I first met Jean-Marie Guffens in the early 1980’s, buying his white Maconnais wines from the first taste for my shop in Paris. His reputation as ‘the mad Belgian’ had preceded him – he and his wife Maine having left their homeland of Flanders in 1976 for Burgundy, where he studied at the local Davaye viticultural school. In 1979 he purchased his first few parcels of vines on the hills of Pierreclos. The domaine now covers 5.3ha to include the villages of Davaye and Vergisson, and it produces separate cuvees of Pouilly-Fuisse, Macon-Pierreclos and Macon-Vergisson and St-Veran. All of them are wines that dominate their appellations year on year. Such was made plain, with Jean-Marie and Maine present, at Farr Vintners in London over a tasting of five flights covering a total of 53 white wines from 2013 to 1989, including those Cote d’Or and Chablis wines made under Jean Marie’s Verget negociant label. The third flight consisted of 12 magnums, the first being this extraordinary 2003 Pouilly-Fuisse. Harvested on 18-19 August with sugars already high due to the heatwave summer that year, but acidity still correct, just the first pressing spending nine months in oak and nine in cement, it showed wonderfully exotic fruit with great clarity and freshness: a sensational wine that expressed the very soul of great white Burgundy. Steven Spurrier, Decanter, March 2020
The 2018 Wines
It can be difficult to put into words, tasting what at times is a contradiction in terms, exactly how to describe this set of wines. I will say that the 2018 release from Guffens-Heynen is entirely typical and what I have come to expect from this estate. That is to say that the wines are brilliant; virile, wildly luxurious, exotic, classic, mineral, intense, elegant and ageworthy. Even in the most ‘classic’ vintages, the wines have an otherness that sets them apart from their peers, and certainly from other international producers. 2018 for me seems as if the dial has been turned up, turned into the red zone of the seemingly impossible; a combination of individuality and classicism, richness and elegance, refinement and brutish lapel-grabbing power.
Diam. The Chavigne Pierreclos vineyard lies on a very steep slope of rich brown clays with countless pierrailles, or small stones. Of all his vineyards, “I love Mâcon-Pierreclos, the most,” Guffens told us, “because it was our very first vineyard and no one wanted it because it was too steep.”
Although several high-profile growers also farm here, it’s a vineyard that has rightly come to be synonymous with Guffens. The Guffens parcel – accounting for 3.3 hectares – is planted at a density of 11,000 vines per hectare and yields 300 – 400g of fruit per vine (just six to eight bunches). In his excellent reference, Inside Burgundy, Jasper Morris MW writes of this vineyard: “Pierreclos is at the crossroads between Mâconnais and Beaujolais … there are good reds to be had here, as well as exceptional whites from Domaine Guffens-Heynen.”
This wine is a blend of fruit from old vines simply called Les Vieilles, plus a parcel from the site’s younger vines, and some press wines from the Tri de Chavigne, all raised in 20% new oak.
Its hard to believe this is the first wine to taste. The first wine is usually the least complex and the “lightest” in body and flavour. And the least interesting, but boy what a beginning. Soaring notes of ripe citrus, stone fruits, grapefruit and lightly smoked almonds. The palate has that wondrous Guffens luxury of flesh and bone. Masses of ripe, juicy fruit, but fresh, as if freshly picked.Textured all the way through and a mineral finish. And this is just the start!
When, about a decade ago, Jean-Marie Guffens enriched his Estate with a single hectare of Saint-Véran, Clos de Poncetys was the parcel that excited him the most. To this day it’s the only single-vineyard Saint-Véran released by Guffens-Heynen and, due to the size of this tiny parcel, it is not released every year. Clos de Poncetys is located in the Davayé commune and sits below the famed Vergisson rock. Guffens describes it as the “Chevalier-Montrachet of Davayé”, a clear reference to the steepness of the site, the rocky, limestone-rich soil, and the site’s ability to produce ultra-pure wines with tremendous stuffing and extract.
I took one sniff of this, and for some reason, the image of Anthony Quinn playing Zorba and the immortal lines “To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble” sprang to mind. This is lapel grabbing stuff. Explosively powerful, with a core of fruit the size of a 1968 Cadillac V8. Like the Cadillac, this Saint Veran has beautiful lines and a textured palate of threaded silk. Remarkable elegance when one considers the weight and presence of the wine. The fruit is more cut deeply with yellow peach, apricot, lime, traces of honey, frangipani and zest of lime.
Diam. Traditionally this wine (previously called Pouilly-Fuissé C.C) has been a blend of fruit from two 40- to 50-year-old parcels on the steep, chalky western slope of the Roche de Vergisson, in the La Côte and En Carmentrant vineyards (hence the ‘C.C’ tag). This year sees the addition of a third parcel, Les Crays, so now it is Les Trois C.
La Côte, which sits directly below the majestic rock, faces north-east and offers a cool, mineral line. The south-facing vines in En Carmentrant add in the fleshy texture. Les Crays is a beautiful located vineyard, sitting mid slope, on the steep ‘belly’ of la Roche de Vergisson. The vineyard’s cool soils – made up of limestone scree – bring a beautiful mineral lift and structural austerity to this blend.
A touch of press wine from the Estate’s other lots of Pouilly-Fuissé brings structure, as does the fact that the wine was raised in 50% new oak.
The most ‘classic’ of the wines tasted, and the most complex. An almost bewildering array of light and darker fruits. As ever there is the explosive element, possessed by all the wines – they are not shy! Flavours of lemon, lime, white and yellow peach, cherry, citrus-rind hints of new oak. So mouth-watering and juicy, but as always with Guffens, a mineral cut and tension. Indeed, this is the most tense wine, but with so much authority behind the deep core of luxurious fruit. The Pomerol of Burgundy.