Francois and Jacques Lurton broke away from Bordeaux to take in every corner of the wine world
The Lurtons are a prolific clan, their marriages often producing seven or more offspring. André Lurton, the grand old man of the Graves, and godfather of Pessac-Léognan, has seven children, of whom the best known are François and Jacques.
As well as reviving many estates in Pessac-Léognan, André at Château Bonnet in Entre Deux Mers produced large volumes of inexpensive wine of very good quality.
That populist strain must have influenced the brothers, who did not follow the traditional Bordelais path of attaching themselves to a single château.
Jacques went to Australia, while François, less of a winemaker than his brother, studied accountancy, and from 1985 worked in marketing and sales for his father.
André was, and is, a strong personality, who could not have been easy to work for, and before too long the brothers teamed up to become ‘flying winemakers’. This also allowed Jacques to make the most of his antipodean experience.
From 1988, the brothers developed wine ranges for Bordeaux négociants and supermarkets such as Tesco. They were pioneers of modern winemaking in Argentina’s uco Valley. Within a few years they were making wine in Italy, China, Spain, Argentina and Moldova, as well as France.
They worked with their cousin Brigitte Lurton to make wines in Rueda, Spain; made Tannat in uruguay; founded their Gran Araucano range in Colchagaua, Chile and embarked on an organic range too.
In Toro, Spain, they worked with Michel Rolland on the Campo Eliseo wines. By this time the business was changing. Although supermarkets had been major clients in the 1980s, François disliked their lack of fidelity – price seemed to be all that mattered.
With their foresight and intelligence, the brothers had acquired a worldwide collection of properties with a rapidly growing reputation. Expansion, especially over different continents, meant a stressful life, despite their ability to appoint good managers and winemakers at their various projects.
By the early 2000s sales were around one million cases a year.
Jacques had interests in Australia that were not shared by his brother. He also had personal reasons for wishing to lead a less hectic life. In 2007, the pair agreed to go their separate ways: François acquired Jacques’s shares in the company as well as the company name, later recast as François Lurton SA.
Although they had seemed to work well together, the brothers had very different personalities. Jacques was the quieter one, interested in pursuing his own hunches, whereas François, who physically resembles his father, also seems to have much of his personality too: determined, feisty and driven. His idea of relaxation is the gruelling Dakar car rally.
François is also an unabashed businessman. He does not pretend to be a hands-on winemaker. he now owns estates and wineries in Argentina, Chile, Spain and Portugal, as well as France, and has 200 employees.
The company generates a turnover of E22 million. As well as the properties that François owns, he leases hundreds of hectares, and claims to produce more wine than the rest of the Lurton clan combined. Even so, volumes have fallen as François focuses more and more on quality.
Within France, François now focuses on the south, which he first visited with André, who was thinking of buying a property there. Many of the early Lurton wines, made when the brothers were still supplying supermarkets, were sourced from the Languedoc.
He has long recognised the potential of the Corbières region, and has acquired Château des Erles in Fitou. Further west in the Roussillon, François bought, in 2009, Mas Janeil in Tautavel, one of the hottest corners in France.
From here he makes single-vineyard wines, including bottlings from ancient Grenache vines and an oak-aged white wine from Grenache Blanc and Macabeu. In Minervois he makes a range of wines from Domaine Les Salices, but does not own the vineyards.
A consultancy with the Catena family that began in 1992 led to an early acquaintance with Mendoza, and just four years later the brothers were buying land in the Uco Valley at 1,100m.
Today, François farms 200ha here, as well as 65ha further north in Maipu. These are among the Lurtons’ best wines, and their success has encouraged François to expand his operations here.
Piedra Negra is an interesting blend of Malbec from both Argentinian and French vine sources, while Chacayes, the flagship wine, is a Malbec-dominated blend, including wine from 1ha planted to an astounding density of 20,000 vines per hectare.
Gran Lurton is a pure Cabernet, which lacks the complexity and weight of the other reds.
In Colchagua, he produces a range of wines under the Araucano label and, in 2012, the 36ha will be certified biodynamic. By far the most interesting wines in the range are the Gran Araucano Cabernet Sauvignon and Alka, a very concentrated Carmenere.
In Portugal’s Douro Valley, the Lurtons initially joined a group venture with local producers such as Dirk Niepoort. François then acquired some modest domaines of his own: Quinta Beira Douro and Quinta do Malhô, both with very old vines. But production here is, for the moment, very limited.
Reviving the white wines of Rueda was one of the Lurton family’s oldest projects, which is still going strong, focusing on the indigenous Verdejo variety.
Not far away, in Toro, the Lurtons’ El Albar range has lost its right to the Toro DO, largely because the Lurtons employ irrigation, ostensibly to achieve ripeness at lower alcohol levels. However, Campo Eliseo, the wine made jointly with Michel Rolland since 2001, remains firmly within Toro. It’s an arresting wine, very rich and concentrated but with sufficient grip to give it ageing potential.
With so many wines in the range, there could be a problem identifying them with François Lurton. Do they constitute a brand? ‘I’ve been told I need a stronger logo,’ says François, ‘with FL in large letters on each wine. But I like the diversity we offer, and prefer a mosaic to an overriding single identity. I see my signature on the label as a token of reliability.’
Nor does he wish to expand production, although his wineries are equipped to double the present output. ‘The task now is to maintain quality while trying to reduce costs, and I’m also working on setting up our own distribution networks in France and South America, distributing other producers’ wines as well as our own.’
His relationship with Bordeaux remains complex. ‘I was very involved in my father’s properties and expanded the business. When it was time to cut the link I had to do it properly. I still have many friends in Bordeaux, but I’m pleased to put myself at a distance from disputes that inevitably arise in large families like ours. It’s easier to breathe!’
With Jacques no longer part of the team, an even greater burden rests on François’ shoulders, but he seems to be thriving on it. An ability to delegate has proved crucial, since the company now produces 80 wines from five different countries.
He seems to have achieved the right balance between relatively inexpensive and commercial wines of reliable quality, and more limited-production and characterful wines from outstanding terroirs.
Jacques Lurton: from Bordeaux to Australia and back again, Monty Waldin
It sounds improbable that Jacques Lurton, a member of one of Bordeaux’s most famous wine families, likes backing underdogs. ‘I usually avoid bestselling books, blockbuster movies and people who seek the spotlight. My preferred grape varieties are those usually considered only as also-rans,’ he says.
I first met Lurton in 1994 at Viña San Pedro, a nine-million-bottle winery in Chile’s Maule Valley. Lurton, then 34, had already established himself as one of the world’s leading flying winemakers, a hired gun paid to turn potentially good grapes which otherwise would have been spoiled by dirty, slapdash winemaking, into drinkable wines.
In 1994, the flying winemaker boom was in full swing when Lurton installed a team of young French, German and New Zealand winemakers at San Pedro.
I was not part of Lurton’s team, but had come there to gain work experience by virtue of the fact I knew San Pedro’s London importer. On day three, a hapless Chilean winemaker carelessly allowed a tank of skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc grapes to explode.
I organised a team to start shovelling the grapes off the floor into the nearest press to save them. Even before putting my shovel away Lurton had promoted me to supervising all skin-contact white wines.
Thanks to him, an underdog bucket-scrubber became a quasi-winemaker.
Although Lurton had studied winemaking in Bordeaux, he learned first-hand about modern winemaking techniques when, still in his 20s, his father André sent him to work with leading winemaker Brian Croser at Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills in 1985. ‘That was when my love of Australia began. Australia gives winemakers an unrivalled creative freedom and sees foreign winemakers as creating jobs and opportunities for the local community, plus tax revenue for the state. You call the Australian tax office and they help you get your papers in order. If I call Bordeaux’s tax office they make me feel like someone out to cheat the state.’
In 2002, Lurton planted his first vineyard, 11 hectares of vines on a 300ha estate he christened The Islander. It’s on Kangaroo Island, just off the coast of South Australia. ‘Until then I had always worked on my father’s vineyards in Bordeaux, or in partnership with my brother François in France, Chile, Spain and Argentina – never on my own.’
Not surprisingly, Lurton ignored headline grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, opting instead to plant lesser lights like Cabernet Franc for his top red, and Semillon for his top white.
‘In 1986 my father made me winemaker at Château La Louvière in Pessac-Léognan, whose whites are built around the Sauvignon Blanc he loves so much. But when I tasted the Semillon grapes, I thought they were the best we had – better than the Sauvignon Blanc. So I put the Semillon in the best barrels thinking I was doing the right thing. When my father found out he went pretty mad – and if you know my father you’ll know what that entails! Ever since, I wanted to make Semillon. I love its freshness, its texture, the fact it can age for years and that its flavours are intriguingly hard to pin down: grassy, mineral, fruity, or all of those things? I love drinking it, and that’s really why I make it.’
The variety at La Louvière that Lurton says his father ‘hated’ was Cabernet Franc. ‘He never used it in red wines. Like Semillon, I felt it was wrong to write off Cabernet Franc.
I never wanted to oppose my father but that is where my love of the underdog started. Both Cabernet Franc and Semillon are criticised for making grassy, herbal wines, but if you keep grape yields down, the wines are wonderfully fruity and refreshing, with no herbaceousness at all.
And both vines are very disease-resistant so don’t need spraying. On Kangaroo Island, the prevailing southerly winds cross an ocean made super cold by the Antarctic so it feels cool, even on the sunniest days. This gives the wines a refreshing coolness but means they need a few years in bottle to settle.’
Lurton still consults – in the Loire, Rhône, Mâcon and Margaux in France as well as in the Crimea – and also makes wine in Bordeaux, having bought 6ha of old-vine Merlot behind the house in Moulon on the Right Bank that he and his recently deceased wife Françoise shared.
The wine, a Bordeaux Supérieur called Domaine La Martinette, will be certified organic from 2011. ‘It is an inexpensive red Bordeaux I make to be enjoyed immediately,’ says Lurton.
‘Making reds at that price which must then be aged makes no sense for wine drinkers. I could have made life easier for myself at The Islander by making early- drinking Shiraz and Chardonnay like everyone else, because they are consistent bestsellers. But following the crowd is not my way. And that’s the way I like it.’
Written by Stephen Brook