Atom Heart Mother

Late last November I joined the very nice chaps at Farr Vintners to taste the wines of Jean-Marie Guffens. Jean-Marie has two labels: Domaine Guffens-Heynen and Maison Verget, and, whilst I’ve never really known the wines well, I’ve been impressed enough by the occasional blind bottle served by Mr B., and by an excellent bottle of 2014 Macon Pierreclos at the equally excellent Lorne, to come along. That Jean-Marie has a reputation for being a bit of a nutter was the gravy.

I’ve long had this theory about the wines of the Maconnais, one that is totally based on my own prejudice, and this is roughly it: the vast majority of Macon is produced as a sort of cheap white Burgundy. It’s got nothing to do with respecting the terroir, or style, of Macon; it’s more to do with producing a decent Chardonnay that you can retail for less than a tenner. The vast majority of these wines are, I think, picked early and made in a style whose aim is to be fresh and inoffensive. As long as the product is crisp, clean and tastes vaguely of old world Chardonnay (i.e. not all ripeness and oak) then the buyer will be satisfied. Which works from a commercial point of view but in my view it’s just another “non-wine” or, to put it another way, yet another wine that is completely devoid of character.

And that, in the Maconnais, is a crying shame. Indeed it’s a crime: it’s like taping over the Godfather with Strictly. Because the best Macons are simply brilliant and – this is the important bit – have a quite inimitable character all of their own. Moreover, their quality can easily reach and surpass their more expensive counterparts further north. Ah, yes – those Lafon wines and those Bret Brother chaps – I imagine you might be thinking. Nope, not those. In my book the very best of the Maconnais comes from Thevenet (Domaine de la Bongran) and, I am now able to report, Mr Guffens.

I arrived early for the tasting at about 9.45 – punctuality is pretty much my sole virtue these days. Surveying the tasting table and the list of wines, Jean-Marie told me that he reckoned he’d be drunk by 10.30, which I thought was ambitious given that we were due to start at 10.

Your man Jean-Marie is not without character, and this penetrates his wines. He’s not unsimilar to another maverick genius – Francois Mitjavile – in his attitude toward ripeness, which is based as much on what you might call common sense as it is science. Influenced or not by alcohol, Jean-Marie is one of those blokes that clearly just gets it.  There is method too: Jean-Marie has one of the few vertical presses in Burgundy – they are more often seen in Champagne. Pick ripe, then press soft and slow, is his mantra.

In flight two, by which time Jean-Marie appeared to making good on his word, we came across what just might be the best white wine I tasted last year, and the wine that got me thinking.

2002 Saint Veran Les Terres Noires “Atom Heart Mother”. After the Pink Floyd album. And there’s a connection here; another alignment. It’s about quality, creativity. And having a crack. Have a listen to Atom Heart Mother and you’ll get it: this was not Simon Cowell, or Stock, Aitken and Waterman. This was not a formula. And that is why, like it or not, you have to appreciate the creativity.

Jean-Marie’s Atom Heart Mother is, in his words, the first “natural wine”. There was one barrel of it, a barrel he chose to bottle with no sulphur. To see what happened. This is creativity; this is not a formula. And it worked. I don’t write many notes that include “this is brilliant” and I distinctly remember thinking of d’Auvenay, in the “how on earth do they do that?” sort of way when tasting it. So, if you can find a bit of Atom Heart Mother (highly unlikely; probably impossible) then you should attempt to acquire it at any cost.

I’m not sure if it’s my age, or if it’s because I’m actually right, but I find the world, and much of its produce, increasingly anodyne. Indeed so much has become so dull, so lacking in character, that younger generations appear to have to look harder and harder to find something to be offended by.

Jean-Marie, and his wines, are a joyous exception. His wines offer absurd value for money and, moreover, they have spirit, they have heart.