A conversation with Jean-Marie Guffens

With an enticing collection of Guffens-Heynen wines in this auction - and with a shared Belgian, even Flemish link to the winemaker himself - I took the opportunity to ask Mr Jean Marie Guffens about his views on wine and its cultivation.

Over the phone, I was lucky enough to ask a few questions. Halfway through the first question, he quickly saw through my French - "Do I hear a Flemish accent there? Then we must continue in the mother tongue!" - after which he cheerfully continued in Flemish. The tone was set for a great conversation.

Mr Guffens, which wines are you enjoying most at the moment?
JMG: "Well, as both a winemaker and a collector with a considerable cellar, I must admit that I have an appreciation for almost all types of wine. Most of all, I enjoy exploring. With the arrival of summer here in France, I recently enjoyed some delicious white wines from the Loire Valley, which offer a unique and refreshing experience. Still, I must admit: I have long lasting affection for the Bordeaux wines of the 80s. If stored well, the top years of 1982 and 1989 in particular show beautifully evolved fruit accompanied by great structure. There are also the lower alcohol levels, which I personally prefer. Looking back on this year so far, I have been particularly captivated by Spanish wines, including Clos Mogador from Priorat, some Galician white wines and the remarkable Tondonias."

Do you have a preference of Tondonia's?
JMG: "As for Tondonia's, while I appreciate the reds, I must say I am really amazed by the whites. Also, in Rioja, thanks to my dear friend Peter Sisseck, I have the pleasure of regularly tasting some wines from Dominio de Pingus, which is a delightful experience."

How do you see yourself as a winemaker?
JMG: "Ugh! Yes... I am definitely not a servant to nature, that's for sure. I am a winemaker. I make the wine. I live in a constant conflict between what I have and what I want to achieve. I have to put the puzzle, as it were, together between what nature brings and the terroir gives me. But I always have to make do with what I am given. It also resonates with where I come from as a winemaker. In the 1970s, my wife, who is also Flemish, and I emigrated to make wine here. So unlike others, we didn't inherit the great terroirs in Burgundy, we had to work with what we had. To this day, we still don't have them, those terroirs, so the wine remains a reflection of our labour. I also believe there is an overdose, too much focus on terroir in today's winemaking scene. Look at the terroirs I have and see what I do with them! Look at how I work with them! Yes, terroir plays a crucial role in our profession, but I think many young winemakers put it too far ahead of their own identity. In my view, that's a shame because I like to drink wines in which I can taste the winemaker's signature. Especially if that translates over several vintages, a glass that when you taste it you can say - "Ah that's that winemaker!" That signature is really important to me."

What do you think about auction houses in the wine trade?
JMG: "I find it a bit bizarre what’s happening to my wines..."

Well Mr Guffens, they say the price reflects the quality.
JMG: "Ha! In most cases... Believe me, I have had some bad expensive wines."

But overall, how do you feel about the position we are in the market?
JMG: "Well I think they’re very useful! Were it not for the secondary market and the auction houses, many winemakers would not be where they are today. It is not only a good barometer for the evolution in the market, but also a good spotlight for smaller vignerons, as they are now picked up in the market much earlier than ever before. It speeds up the process of recognition. Furthermore, as a wine lover and buyer, I find it interesting because, for example, as a customer, I can find wines at Sylvie's that even I don't have access to. Plus, I strive to buy as many different things from all over the world as possible, so an auction house gives me that opportunity and I can do it in small quantities. So I find the whole experience enjoyable."

Michiel Maes
Sylvie's Wine Auctions
June 2024

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