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Bordeaux's Empire Builders

Whether running a world-famous winery or a regional farmers' union, the Lurtons are one of Bordeaux's most influential dynasties. A writer traces the Lurton family tree in order to understand the region's past and future.

Apart from organized crime, there is no business in which family counts for more than it does in the wine trade. If any family proves this, it is the Lurtons of Bordeaux. The Lurtons—four in the elder generation, more than 20 in the younger—now run everything from renowned châteaus (Cheval Blanc, Brane-Cantenac) to regional farmers' unions. And their influence doesn't stop at Bordeaux's borders. The younger generation makes wine around the world, from Argentina to Australia. Gonzague Lurton attributes the family's rise and sprawl, half jokingly, to religion. "We're very strong believers, very strong Catholics," he says. "The original Lurtons were from Berry, in Central France, and the story is that the Church sent them southwest to Bordeaux, which was full of Protestants, so they could make lots of little Catholics."

This is not an old dynasty; it has emerged in less than half a century. Léonce Récapet, who lived from 1858 to 1943, made the family's original fortune with a substantial distillery in the little town of Branne, 20 miles east of the city of Bordeaux in Entre-Deux-Mers. Some of his descendants still live and make wine in the grand old houses he bought in this peaceful backwater; Marc Lurton, a great-grandson, says they are confident that with sufficient investment, the classic limestone soil of Entre-Deux-Mers will one day turn the good wines they're currently producing into great ones.

In addition to buying local land and vineyards, Récapet invested farther afield, in the famous wine estates whose vineyards lie downriver from the city of Bordeaux, on the gravel banks of the Médoc region. In 1922, he bought Château Brane-Cantenac, a 210-acre estate in the village of Margaux, which was ranked as a second growth, plus a share in the neighboring estate, the first-growth Château Margaux. (The 1855 classification rated the wines of the Médoc as crus classés, or classed growths, ranging from first to fifth. The first growths, or premiers crus, of which there are five, are the most prestigious; top wines from some other districts are labeled premier grand cru classé. Second growths are almost as sought-after.)

Léonce Récapet's daughter married François Lurton, an accountant, who gave the dynasty his name. François traded the share in Château Margaux for Château Clos Fourtet, a leading estate in St-Émilion. But it was Château Brane-Cantenac, Récapet's other purchase, that became the springboard for an extraordinary portfolio of estates.

A Story of Inheritance

As in a good nineteenth-century novel, the Lurton saga hinges on inheritance. But this is France, where the egalitarian laws handed down from the era of the French Revolution keep the winner from taking all. It may seem odd that François's second son, Lucien, inherited Brane-Cantenac, one of the great names of Bordeaux wine, while the eldest, André, got the far less illustrious Château Bonnet. Their brother, Dominique, and their only sister, Simone, might also appear to have gotten slim pickings. But at the time, says Lucien's son Gonzague, "Everyone thought Lucien had just inherited a load of worthless pebbles." The wine trade had not recovered from the Second World War; it wouldn't really hit its stride until the 1970s. "My parents lived for years like simple peasants," Lucien's daughter Brigitte remembers. André's Château Bonnet, with its animal-feed sideline, seemed a much safer bet.

As it turned out, though, both André and Lucien made good on their inheritances—though they have sometimes found it hard to get along. André, according to his son Jacques, commands a manic energy that amounts to megalomania. He has a genius for sniffing out great soil under abandoned estates, buying them for next to nothing and replanting them. André essentially redrew the wine map of Bordeaux, clearing pine forests to plant vineyards and fighting to get the subregions of Entre-Deux-Mers and Pessac-Léognan officially recognized. Now 77, he presides over the producers' syndicate for the commune of Pessac-Léognan. He has built up a portfolio of estates—including the architectural jewel of the region, Château La Louvière, renowned for its great whites—that he shows no sign of relinquishing to his heirs anytime soon. "Dad wants to die in his office. Perhaps we can wall him in and create a mausoleum," Jacques says with the dry humor that is a family trademark.

In contrast to his outgoing elder brother, André, Lucien is a private, bookish man—and also in contrast, he bought mainly estates with established reputations, whose wines could start making money right away. Brane-Cantenac gave him the initial collateral, but what kept raising him to ever higher levels was his ability to read the market.

Despite their strained relations, the brothers did collaborate on one venture, Clos Fourtet, for some time; they eventually sold the estate. Dominique's son Pierre ran this property, reporting to both his uncles; the experience, he says, "taught me the value of diplomacy." Today, the younger generation of Lurtons gets along famously—both socially and professionally.

The Younger Generation

André's sons, Jacques and François, who operate commercially as JF Lurton, are the most cosmopolitan members of the family. They were among the very first "flying winemakers," consulting at wineries around the world; now they own estates internationally. Jacques is the winemaker; François handles the business end. Jacques spent a formative period in Australia working for both the McWilliam's firm, in the irrigated regions that turn out wine in high volumes, and the superb Petaluma Estate. After that, his cousin Brigitte let him indulge his passion for traditional winemaking at her estate in Rueda, in northern Spain, where he made a Burgundian-style top-of-the-line white from old Verdejo vines. He would probably be settled in Bordeaux today, making the wine for André's six estates, if he hadn't inherited the family's individualism. "I could have gone on, if my dad had left me a bit of room," he acknowledges, "but I would have just stayed the son of my dad and never appeared center stage."

Pierre, Dominique's son, is also doing world-class work. He is on the verge of making a superior wine in Argentina, a country where his cousins Jacques and François own two substantial estates. But his plum job is managing Château Cheval Blanc, the most famous (and expensive) of the St-Émilion estates and a holy of holies in the wine world. As I stood in Pierre's rather antiquated fermentation cellar, sniffing at scents of roses and violets in a glass of newly bottled 2001, he told me, "Cabernet Franc is what gives Cheval Blanc its utter originality, its distinctive signature. Merlot is rich, but it tends to get too ripe. Cheval Blanc is Merlot that comes in a layer of freshness and fruit provided by the Cabernet Franc." Under Pierre's guidance, Cheval Blanc has garnered rave reviews. He admits he has to pay attention to the current taste for rich, deeply colored wines; punning on the name of the estate, he says, "I have to fatten up the horse a little without letting him lose his elegance."

Lucien's Legacy

Lucien's 10 children have also become a force in wine. With several of their estates long ago recognized as classed growths, they can depend on the loyalty of connoisseurs, and so don't feel the pressure some of their cousins do to make crowd-pleasing wines. They preach the religion of terroir, the quest to make wines that faithfully reflect the nuances of different soils and microclimates, and many observers believe they have taken their wines to new heights. But while they have the freedom that comes from financial independence, the way they got it took them by surprise.

Lucien, his children say, turns things over and over in his mind and then, finally, comes to an irrevocable decision. In 1991, he asked Gonzague, a lawyer who had been studying business management, to help him set up the distribution of his estates in preparation for his coming retirement. "Even though I worked on this for a whole year," Gonzague says, "I never believed he would actually do it." All 10 heirs were asked to write down their first, second and third choices of estates. Their father announced his decisions and then disappeared, incommunicado, for a year of travel. Denis abruptly gave up a career in the law. (He is now president of the farmers' union for the entire region.) Bérénice, the youngest, went straight from her final exams in political science to sharing ownership of Château Climens—a first-growth estate that makes a wonderful and remarkably long-lived sweet wine—with Brigitte, her eldest sister.

Ten years later, most of Lucien's children are still running their estates. At first they huddled together, pooling their skills and their farm equipment; they still market some of their wines through La Passion des terroirs, the company they jointly own. But cooperation can turn into competition when everyone needs the same tractor at once. Brigitte rapidly got out of Climens; managing it with Bérénice, she says, "was like having two people simultaneously trying to drive the same car. But now we're the best of friends."

Slides and Comebacks

"We're all different—we are very much individualists," says Sophie, the proprietor of the classed-growth Château Bouscaut in Pessac-Léognan. Her brother and neighbor Louis, the eldest of Lucien's children, has 94 acres at Château Haut-Nouchet, where he practices organic farming. He is also active in Terre et Vin de Bordeaux, an association that promotes natural winemaking methods, and he is given to trying out ideas like spraying against mildew with dilute clay rather than the usual copper sulfate. In 1992 and 1993 the consequences were disastrous, and he escaped financial meltdown only by selling Sophie his share in Bouscaut and obtaining help from his father. Since then he's "relearned everything about working organically—I've learned the hard way," he says. He seems to have turned the corner now. His organic methods, he believes, result in denser skins, which both protect the grapes from disease and give the wines deeper color and richer tannins. Château Haut-Nouchet's red has rich blackberry fruit and ages beautifully. Its delicious white, fermented in large barrels, will appeal even to those who don't ordinarily love Sauvignon Blanc.

But it is Lucien's son Henri, at Brane-Cantenac, who has achieved the most dramatic turnaround. The critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., recently wrote that "this famous property, which has long underperformed, has been resurrected over recent vintages," and he gave a high score to the 2000 vintage. The press took note when Henri opened his renovated cellar, with its rows of new wooden vats. But he's spent even more time and money in the vineyards, he told me, replanting and retrellising the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and restoring such traditional techniques as plowing between the vines and hand harvesting.

Journalists slighted the old Brane-Cantenac partly because Lucien, when he was running it, preferred wines that were unfashionably light and high in acidity. At nearby Durfort-Vivens, his son Gonzague—who also heads the producers' syndicate for the Margaux appellation—continues to defy fashion by emphasizing fruit, elegance and complexity over oak and dark color. This is my kind of Bordeaux, and I caused a huge disruption when I was visiting Durfort, which is not set up for direct sales, by prevailing on Gonzague to sell me a couple of cases.

Armed with the fortune he inherited, Gonzague can afford to be a purist. You might think this would irritate his cousin Jacques, who has to meet rigid profit margins at some of his industrial properties. But that's hardly the case. For one thing, the two of them share the Lurtons' unwillingness to take themselves too seriously. More than one member of the family told me, "Nôtre travail nous dépasse"—loosely, "Who we are is less important than what we do." It's an oddly humble outlook for such a powerful dynasty. But as Jacques explained to me, "We're not typical Bordeaux aristocrats. What we are is a hardworking bourgeois family."

Patrick Matthews is the author of The Wild Bunch and Real Wine.

Published October 2002
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