Jacques Lurton has an engaging, wheezy chuckle, the laugh of a man who has seen a good deal of the world and generally finds it amusing. He deploys it several times when we meet, over dinner and over Zoom – particularly when he’s talking about the complex Lurton legacy.
His father, André Lurton, former French Resistance fighter, creator of the Pessac-Léognan appellation, founder of Vignobles André Lurton, mayor of Grézillac, director of the CIVB for 20 years, was a colossus. ‘Few men have done as much to shape Bordeaux,’ the wine writer Jane Anson said.
Jacques, who took on the presidency of Vignobles André Lurton in 2019, on his father’s death, inherited the ‘huge expectation’ of the name. ‘If a Lurton speaks, people listen. So everyone was waiting for me to say something. But that isn’t my way: I’ve done nothing for Bordeaux but because I’m the son of André Lurton my voice has resonance.’ I wonder if his life would have been easier had he had a different surname. A dry chuckle. ‘Much easier.’
Being saddled with a famous name must be a difficult balancing act for someone who hates to impose himself. His secret power, Lurton tells me, is to listen. It’s an essential skill for a consultant: you can’t just breeze into a winery in the Hunter Valley, or the Loire, or the Uco Valley, or Moldova or China or any number of the dozen or so regions where he has worked, and give your opinion. ‘You have to listen to everything and understand why things are the way they are. Then you can make changes without imposing yourself.’
Lurton, who is 62, left Bordeaux as a young man to consult in Australia, returning in 1985 to work for his father as technical director of the company. The young winemaker came back brimming with ideas. ‘Chillers for grapes, use of inert gases like carbon dioxide and nitrogen, filtration systems, skin contact, yeast selection… I was really excited.’ But Lurton Sr took some convincing. ‘It was a paradox. My father was very modern, the company was a thinktank for new technology, but at the same time he was an amazing defender of tradition.’ There were some epic clashes, most notably in 1986 when Jacques, as winemaker at Château La Louvière in Pessac, used some prime barrels for Semillon, which his father disdained. ‘He was furious about it.’
The Lurtons tend not to sit still. Throughout the 1990s Jacques and his brother François built up their eponymous JFL brand, buying estates in France, Spain, Portugal and South America. Jacques sold his shares in the company in 2006 to concentrate on his consultancies. And now he’s presiding over some radical ventures across the Graves properties of Vignobles André Lurton. The flagship Château Couhins Lurton is undergoing a comprehensive renovation, which includes the introduction of amphora ageing for the whites. He’s planting Semillon (it will be reintroduced into the Rochemorin and La Louvière whites) and two-and-a-half hectares of Cabernet Franc, which he fell in love with in Chile and during 22 years consulting in the Loire, and which will be used for a single-variety Château Rochemorin.
There are many other projects being worked on by this energetic iconoclast, who ‘hates the constraints’ of the French appellation system. He believes in terroir, of course – in the idea that the different regions of France are identified with certain grape varieties and styles of wine, but ‘within that we have too many rules, for density and pruning and height and yields; we can’t mix this grape with that, you can’t change from one region to another, you can’t add sugar… it’s so crazy because it limits our capacity to compete with the rest of the world.’ I feel he’s going to be busy in his capacity of head of communications for the Entre-deux-Mers syndicat viticole, and vice-president at Pessac-Léognan.
All this is said with the good humour of a man who has knocked around wine for four decades, and considers ‘tradition’ a loose concept. ‘There’s a gap between what we say and what we do in the wine world. We’re always talking about tradition but we’re changing all the time.’
But for all his urge to shake things up there’s a sense that Lurton has come back to his roots. He still has the Islander Estate on his beloved Kangaroo Island in South Australia, but is firmly entrenched in Bordeaux. Not only professionally: there’s the boat at Arcachon, and he’s the drummer in a five-piece band. ‘What do we play? The Beatles, the Stones – we’re learning ‘Honky Tonk Women’ at the moment. Just the classics.’
What was your childhood ambition?
I wanted to be a priest until I was about 12; I was quite religious. I liked the idea but that changed. I really wanted to be a farmer. I was always passionate about the countryside, the land, and animals and plants – I am drawn to fields and have always considered myself a farmer.
What exercise do you do?
I play tennis and I cycle.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I’d like to be softer sometimes…
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
We have a boat, a Boston Whaler. There’s nothing particularly extravagant about having a boat, but it’s quite an expensive exercise to buy and to maintain. We keep it at Arcachon Bay where we have a house – we use it for water-skiing.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I’d live on Kangaroo Island in South Australia [where Lurton owns the Islander Estate]; I love the remoteness and the freedom it offers. I generally go there once a year but have not been since March 2020. I plan to go back this year.
If you could do any other job what would it be?
I’d be a professional drummer. I play in a rock ‘n’ roll band – I’m not a great drummer but we meet every Wednesday. We’re called Turnover, not because we make so much money [laughs], but because we had so many changes in the lineup at first, but now we’re quite established – we have a lead guitar, a bass guitar, sax and a singer. We try out a new song every two weeks or so. We play the classics – the Beatles, Rolling Stones – we’re doing ‘Honky Tonk Women’ at the moment.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
A Swiss Army knife.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
I would like to tour Australia.
If you were king of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
I’d put an end to war, and forbid weapons.
Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Le pain aux raisins.
What’s your secret talent?
Listening. As a consultant it’s necessary to listen to everything and understand why things are the way they are, and why you can’t change them within a day; then you can introduce what you want to do without imposing your ideas. I like psychology; I like entering people’s minds; I value the simplicitiy of work, but when it comes to people, I’m attracted by a bit of complexity.
Whom do you most admire?
Vladimir Volkoff [the French-Russian writer whom Lurton characterises as ‘a kind of Russian Ken Follett’]. I have read every one of his books – I am a passionate admirer of his writing; he is everywhere in my life.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘Aller!’ (Come on!) and ‘Ahurissant!’ (Mind-boggling).
What’s your greatest regret?
That I’m not 40 years younger.
What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?
The Crown (Netflix).
What’s your most treasured possession?
My old photographs.
What time do you go to bed?