The Lurton family is steeped in Bordeaux winemaking lore. But brothers Jacques and François are now transplanting that expertise into vineyards across the globe. By STEPHEN BROOK.
Francois Lurton stands on a windswept hillside in the Fitou region near Narbonne, gazing at vineyards scattered along the slopes among woodland and scrub. Gaunt windmills spin on a distant ridgetop. François murmurs: ‘My brother Jacques and I took one look at this landscape and just knew we could make great wine here.’
This was an unusually heartfelt remark from a man I had always regarded as a supreme wine technician. Since the late 1980s the Lurton brothers have scoured the world for sources of good grapes, working initially as flying winemakers and consultants. More recently, however, they have bought their own vineyards, where they can do as they please.
Here in Fitou they have teamed up with a charming but tough-minded grape farmer called Marie-Jose Bergez. She had been making wine at Château des Erles since the mid-1990s but knew the grapes had far more potential than she was extracting from them.
‘When I heard that the Lurtons were looking for vineyards here, I phoned directory enquiries and just said “Lurton, Bordeaux”. Eventually I got through to the right one, a meeting was arranged and we set up a joint venture.’ The Lurtons expanded the vineyards, installed new winemaking equipment and made their first vintage here in 2001. It showed that the Lurtons’ hunch was correct: Fitou is capable of producing wine as good as any in the Languedoc.
The Lurtons are one of the great Bordeaux wine clans. Lucien Lurton had 11 children, almost all of whom now run the properties he acquired, while his brother André had a mere six – four girls plus François and Jacques. Now in his late 70s, André was the prime begetter of the Pessac-Léognan appellation, renowned for its quality, while at the same time showing at Château Bonnet in Entre-Deux-Mers that wines could be made in large volumes without compromising quality.
It was a lesson not lost on his sons, but their education was yet to be completed. Jacques jetted off to Australia, where he was greatly influenced by Brian Croser at Petaluma, while François became an accountant and returned to Bordeaux to work under the watchful eye of his strong-willed father. Jacques was keen to put his international experience to work, and the brothers developed ventures worldwide, creating styles and ranges for supermarkets, notably Tesco, and for Bordeaux négociants such as Ginestet.
François bears a strong physical resemblance to his father. When his brow furrows, I sense the first ominous signs of the flashes of temper for which both men are renowned. But there is clearly a mutual respect between them.
Lurton Fatherly advice
‘We have turned to my father for advice,’ says François, ‘and he has been happy to give it. We brought him out to Mendoza to look at the land we wanted to buy. He took one look at the gravel soils, and urged us to go ahead. I know he’s proud of what we have achieved around the world. But of course it differs a great deal from his own world in Bordeaux.’
The business grew fast, and by the late 1980s they were producing wines in Italy, China, Spain, Argentina and Moldova, not to mention France itself. ‘My father was too involved in Bordeaux to want to set up an international business. We went ahead and I even sold my house to help finance our new company in 1996.’
The organisation is a complex one. In Spain, where the brothers were pioneers of Sauvignon Blanc and oak-aged Verdejo from Rueda, they teamed up with their cousin Brigitte Lurton to found an estate called Belondrade y Lurton. In Argentina, where they had been consultants to Catena, they acquired virgin land in the Uco Valley and developed their own vineyards. In Uruguay they have worked for seven years with Castel Pujol, trying to get to grips with the rough-edged Tannat variety, with which they think they are slowly succeeding. In the Languedoc they created a very successful Sauvignon brand called ‘Fumées Blanches’, sourcing grapes from various cooperatives and vineyards. France too is the source of their organic range Terra Sana.
Managing an international enterprise of such diversity would drive most people to distraction, but the Lurtons seem to thrive on it. ‘In the Languedoc,’ explains Francois, ‘we work closely with six domaines for our AC wines. We have our own people in place at each domaine, so we can oversee growing practices as well as winemaking.
‘When it comes to vins de pays, we still act as flying winemakers, sending in our team to work at wineries and coops. That gives us a lot of flexibility, as we can cherry-pick from year to year.’
Some of their best wines come from South America. In Chile, where Jacques once worked with Viña San Pedro, they developed their Gran Araucano range of wines from Colchagua and a cheaper Araucano range of varietals. Meanwhile in Mendoza they have 15 separate projects, of which the jewel in the crown is their Gran Lurton range. ‘We had a hunch about Argentina,’ says François, ‘because it was already a country with a huge local market that knew about wine.’
Their most curious venture is in the torrid but increasingly fashionable Toro region of central Spain, where they collaborate with Michel Rolland on a wine called Campo Eliseo, and produce their own wine called El Albar. Why, I wondered, did they need to work with a rival oenologist and consultant? ‘We wanted to make red wine in Spain,’ explains François, ‘so we looked at Toro. Michel already had some experience there and was convinced of its potential. One day we were talking about the problems of making good wine in very hot regions and decided to team up. It’s as much a friendly co-venture as a commercial enterprise, and it has worked out well.’
Their business continues to evolve. At one time almost every British supermarket was commissioning wines from the Lurtons. ‘We worked well with them,’ says François, ‘because they were looking for good quality at a reasonable price. Now that has changed. With a few exceptions, the supermarkets want low prices but don’t care about quality. Every year we risk being undercut by another supplier, just on price. So we are working more with traditional merchants such as Tanners, John Armit and Corney & Barrow. Not only does this give us more stability but, surprisingly, it has also increased our turnover.’
While moving steadily upmarket, the brothers Lurton are also reverting to their roots, collecting estates just as their father and uncle did. The major difference, of course, is that they are operating on an international scale.
‘Ownership gives us far greater control, especially over viticulture,’ says Francois, ‘and Jacques is always doing experiments and making improvements in trellising and density. We would love to try to do something in Portugal. But there are only 24 hours in any day! Some years ago Jacques and I thought, ‘We just can’t go on like this.’ The stress was too great, and places like Argentina were a nightmare for commercial reasons. But we’ve trained a good team to run our projects worldwide. It’s paid off and our business is successful, so now we can relax a bit more as we have confidence in the people we have trained.’
I have my doubts about the relaxation bit. Jacques was unable to join François and myself in Fitou, as originally planned, as he was summoned urgently to Argentina to deal with the new vintage. On his return, François would jump on the next flight to Argentina. Their lives may be a whirl of activity, punctuated by skiing weekends, but they have made an indelible imprint on the world of wine, and shown that, with few exceptions, large volumes of around one million cases per annum need not be produced at the expense of consistent quality.