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Unravelling the Dynasty

The Lurtons are Bordeaux’s first family, at the helm of scores of châteaux across the region and, increasingly, the world. STEPHEN BROOK meets the clan

Whenever a member of the Lurton family is joined in matrimony, you can be certain that there will be a swift issue of children – sometimes as many as ten of them. That, and the family’s ardent Catholicism, explains the ubiquity of this family across the face of Bordeaux, especially since most Lurtons have pursued careers in the wine business. They are everywhere: in Margaux and Moulis, in Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes, in the Entre-Deux-Mers. Between them, they own some 800ha (hectares), and have created their own distribution systems for the wines. In the beginning there was Léonce Récapet, who wasn’t a Lurton at all and was a distiller by trade. His daughter Denise married François Lurton. She died young, in 1934, and her father outlived her, dying at a ripe old age in 1943. Before her death she had given birth to four children: André (born in 1924), Lucien (1925), Simone, (1929), and Dominique (1932). Simone and her children played nopart in the wine business, but her three brothers emphatically did.

Bordeaux pioneers

André Lurton was born at the grand family base of Château Bonnet at Grézillac

in the northern reaches of the Entre- Deux-Mers, and it remains his home.

When I stayed there almost 20 years ago, its interior appeared scarcely altered since the 19th century, and André seemed to like it that way. Over the years he

developed Bonnet into a very large estate specifically geared to produce substantial quantities of wine at a fair price. The white in particular is a dependable staple on Bordeaux wine lists. The octogenarian has never fought shy of innovation, and introduced screwcaps for Bonnet’s white wines when most other producers were gasping with horror at the suggestion. But his real achievement lies elsewhere, in the northern Graves. Here he acquired

a number of properties, notably La Louvière, Rochemorin and Couhins-Lurton, which he renovated. In 1965, when he bought La Louvière, the Graves was something of a backwater with just a few properties (Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Haut-Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier, and Carbonnieux) widely known. André was well aware of the exceptional terroir of this area; the finest wines had always come from the north, and he campaigned long and hard to unite its properties under a new appellation. With fierce determination, he fought many legal objections and tribunals until 1987, when the new Pessac-Léognan AC came into being. All the classified growths of the Graves lie within its boundaries. He also waged war against an urban development that would have led to the destruction of hundreds of hectares of vineyards. The Pessac-Léognan appellation has thrived, and the vineyards have expanded from a mere 500ha to their present 1,500ha. André was also hired to manage Dauzac in Margaux and he and his daughter Christine Lurton-De Caix have transformed this once obscure property into a source of excellent, and – for a classified growth – inexpensive wines. André Lurton is feisty and combative. He may not be universally loved in Bordeaux, but he is universally respected, and the other proprietors of Pessac- Léognan are well aware of how much they owe to his vision and tenacity. Back in the 1920s, François Lurton had bought Brane-Cantenac in Margaux and a sizeable share in Château Margaux, which he later exchanged for Clos Fourtet in St-Emilion. After his death in 1971, his four children inherited his properties, and the Margaux estates went to Lucien Lurton, who lived at Brane- Cantenac. He was soon acquiring other properties: Durfort-Vivens and Desmirail in Margaux, Bouscaut in the Graves, Climens and Doisy-Dubroca in Barsac, and more besides. Lucien was an efficient steward of his portfolio, but the estates were run on commercial lines, with many of the vineyards machine-harvested and cropped at yields higher than would be considered acceptable today. Nonetheless at some properties, such as Climens, the highest standards were maintained.

Weighty inheritance

In 1992, when in his late sixties, Lucien chose not only to retire but hand over the running of his estates to his 10 children. Edwige Lurton is co-owner of Brane-Cantenac, a Margaux classed growth run by her brother Henri, who isa trained oenologist. Since the late 1990s the quality of its wines has soared. Third growth Desmirail was turned over to Denis Lurton, who has also overseen considerable improvements in quality, even though the wines are little known. Marie-Laure Lurton, also an oenologist, looks after Villegorge (Haut- Médoc), as well as two other properties, Duplessis in Moulis and La Tour de Bessan in Margaux. Quality remains sound rather then exceptional at this trio, but she has the least interesting terroirs. Gonzague Lurton inherited Margaux second-growth Durfort-Vivens. The property was in poor shape and it has been a lengthy task to restore its cellars and its reputation. The wine is controversial, as Gonzague insists on making it in a restrained, elegant style. He is the most reserved, even shy, of the siblings, but holds strong views on such issues as the probity of tasting samples during en primeur week, and isn’t afraid to express them.

While president of the Margaux Syndicat, he spearheaded the campaign against a new super-highway that would have vandalised the vineyards of Margaux. Plans for the new road have now been shelved. As for his wine, in some years Durfort-Vivens can be undernourished and it has yet to seem entirely worthy of its exalted secondgrowth status. (Gonzague married into another Bordeaux dynasty, the Merlauts, and his wife Claire Villars runs her own portfolio of fine properties: the two classified growths of La Ferrière in Margaux and Haut-Bages-Libéral in Pauillac, as well as La Gurgue in Margaux.) Lucien’s daughter Brigitte Lurton moved into Bouscaut in what became Pessac-Léognan, and also ran Climens. Family disputes in the 1990s led to her departure and she subsequently moved to Spain to pursue new interests in the Rueda region. Her sister Sophie Lurton- Congombles took over Bouscaut and she and husband Laurent Congombles have been steadily improving the quality of what used to be rather lean, pinched whites and red. Meanwhile the youngest of the siblings, Bérénice Lurton, took over at Climens. Despite her youth, she has proved fanatical in her devotion to the property, crafting the wine barrel by barrel and successfully increasing prices so as to allow her to pursue a perfectionist course in the vineyard as well as winery. Until very recently, she was also the owner of the

medieval Château de Camarsac in the Entre-Deux-Mers, where she produced agreeable and inexpensive red wines. Today the property is being run by her brother Thierry, who has relinquished his share in Brane-Cantenac. Finally, there are two properties run by the most eccentric of the Lurton siblings, Louis. He used to make the wines at Bouscaut and is now responsible for the tiny Barsac second growth of Doisy-Dubroca and for Haut-Nouchet in Pessac-Léognan, both farmed organically. I find the wines inconsistent, indeed highly irregular both in quality and style. But Louis Lurton pursues his own path, unfazed by adverse criticism.

Branching out

The youngest of François Lurton’s children, Dominique, has handed over his properties in the Entre-Deux-Mers to two of his four children. Marc Lurton runs Château Reynier, not far from Château Bonnet; its wines are sound and reliable. Marc’s brother Pierre lives at Château Marjosse, which produces decent, unspectacular and fairly priced wines. Pierre used to run Clos Fourtet in St-Emilion in the 1980s, but is now better known as the genial, astute director of two first growths: Cheval Blanc and Yquem. When he gets up in the morning, he jokes, he must decide whether to turn left or right when leaving his driveway, all depending on whether his presence is needed more at Cheval Blanc or Yquem. By the time business mogul Bernard Arnault of LVMH, acquired Yquem in 1999, Pierre Lurton was already working for him as the experienced director of Cheval Blanc, so it seemed obvious to Arnault that he should run the newly acquired first growth as well. The development of the Mendoza joint venture, Cheval des Andes, has been another of his responsibilities. Pierre, following Lurton tradition, has six children waiting in the wings. His professional life is as hectic as his family

life, requiring constant travel and promotion of these great wines. His uncle André has set an even more fecund example, with a total of seven children, mostly daughters who are not involved in the wine business. His sons Jacques and François probably felt there were already too many Lurtons in Bordeaux, especially their formidable father, so in the 1980s they carved a career for themselves as flying winemakers, with Jacques taking care of production and François looking after sales. Soon they began buying vineyards and building wineries and, by the early 2000s, were operating on a large scale in many parts of the world. In Mendoza, they were one of the first wineries to open in the

outstanding Uco Valley, where their flagship wines are Gran Lurton Cabernet

and Piedra Negra Malbec; in Toro, north of Madrid, their bodega has released a series of rich fleshy red wines; in Chile their Araucano estate produces superb

and costly Carmenère. But in 2007 Jacques left the company, which was renamed Domaines François Lurton. Jacques now runs his own properties in Australia and Entre-Deux-Mers and is acting as an exclusively white-wine consultant to a few estates that interest him. Family is the link between the Lurtons, yet they seem surprisingly different. François Lurton may be a chip off the old block, but if you saw Henri, Gonzague, and Sophie in the same room, you would not immediately suppose they were siblings. What they have in common is not just DNA but an immersion in wine from an early age. The Lurtons, of whatever generation, are not dabblers or dilettantes. Wine matters to them – and we are all their beneficiaries.

Written by Stephen Brook

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