Please remember to approach the world of wine responsibly
If there is nobility in wine, and I believe that there is, then the blood of Château d'Yquem must be the deepest blue. When classifications were handed out is 1855 they were the only Sauternes to be given the title of Premier Cru Supérieur (Superior First Growth) and the wine has maintained such high standards that to talk about the greatest ever wines and not to mention d'Yquem is akin to going outside without your trousers on (unless you wear a kilt of course).
It is a wine that is so complex, concentrated and has the ability, if looked after, to reward one over a century later. This honeyed beauty is as balanced as a person walking over the Niagra Falls on a tightrope and as satisfying as anything that Shakespeare has to offer. There are so many reasons for this and chief among them must be the fact that the producers don't rush, or treat the grapes with a lack of respect. There are no single sweeps of the vineyard here, and the people of Château d'Yquem know that it is sometimes better to pick individual grapes when they are ready than rush at things like a boy on his first date. They sweep on average six times to pick the best expressions of 'noble rot', and have been known to abandon a vintage if the grapes are not deemed worthy of gracing a bottle. To call d'Yquem a dessert wine is similar to cheapening something by using the word 'nice'. This is winemaking as an art form, and Château d'Yquem must know what they are about because they've been in business since the sixteenth century. Is it any wonder that a bottle of the 2011 was sold for £75000 ($117000) in 2011 to become the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold (at that moment)?
To be allowed to have a conversation with Pierre Lurton, the Chief Executive Officer can only be classed as having a conversation with viticultural royalty. He was appointed to the Presidency of the company in 2004 and has steered Château d'Yquem gently through the seas of modernity while respecting that he is in charge of a brand that cannot be pushed hastily into the future. If you study his history you will understand that he has the safe hands of a man whose family have become one of the great wine families of Bordeaux and beyond.
I start by asking him if the Lurton children are always expected to go into the family business, considering their long history in winemaking?
Simaine, Sangiovese and The Heart of Darkness
How I Found My Heart of Wine Country
Talk to Victor Simon, the co-owner and winemaker at Simaine Cellars and you are instantly plugged into a Californian history of winemaking. He is small in stature, but his welcome and sense of humour to all who visit are massive. Men and Women like Victor still inhabit Wine Country, growing small amounts of wine with an enthusiasm that seems to be based on family and memory. People like Victor are often missed and that is a crime!
share various conversations about mutual friends and mutual wines and it seems as though a party is about to irrupt in the tasting room!
By the time I leave, I've tried Victor's wonderful salsa that he pairs equally well with his tremendous Zinfandel, turned down an invitation to a Mexican meal I'm assured will be the best I've ever eaten (I don't doubt it) and talked with his friends about why they think so highly of him. I must also say that his wines are superb and he makes a Sangiovese like no other I have tasted in a very long time. After a visit to Simaine Cellars you know that you're not in 'Wine Country' Kansas any more, and did I mention he makes stunning Sangiovese?
PIERRE LURTON: 'Yes and no, I was lucky enough to gain experience on the slopes at my father and uncles at Château Clos Fourtet for 10 years, and to take over the management of Château Cheval Blanc for 30 years outside the family system.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Chateau d'Yquem is a wine that is buiilt for tradition, yet the young seem to be turning away from the wine. How do you intend to maintain interest in future years?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'Château d'Yquem is a timeless wine and meets the desirability criteria of young people who are discovering a more modern way of tasting. by discovering young vintages, served chilled as an aperitif or at the beginning of a meal on less traditional dishes.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Why does Mexico not seem to have a brilliant wine industry?'
VICTOR: 'They do, but the problem with Mexico is who is behind the viticulture? It's Spain. They are the biggest producers of grapes grown in Mexico because they produce a lot of Brandy. They know that Mexicans love Brandy. Not a lot of Mexicans love wine. This is my sixteenth harvest and I'm so glad when a Mexican comes into my tasting room.
WINEFULLNESS: 'When the Lurton family meet for dinner what are the most popular subjects to discuss other than wine?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'With my cousins, we talk a lot about boats because, while having our feet on the ground, we look at the horizon and the great outdoors: the sea and travel are also our passions.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'In your opinion, what makes d'Yquem so unique?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'It is the wine of time travel par excellence. Château d’Yquem passes the centuries with great elegance.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Outside of Bordeaux, is there an appellation that really excites you, and why?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'I love Burgundy for the diversity of its terroirs, its climates and for the purity of its wines.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What does the future hold for Pierre Lurton and for Château d'Yquem?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'My mission, like that of my predecessors, as well as the person who will take over from me, is to continue this quest for excellence.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Which question do you wish you had been asked and why?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'No more questions and a big thank you for your patience!'
WINEFULLNESS MAGAZINE: 'The location of your vines needs a climatic balance. Has your approach to farming changed as climate change has increased?'
DIDIER SEGUIER: 'The climate is indeed changing. As proof, the harvest dates have changed. Forty years ago the harvest began at the end of September or the beginning of October. Today it is often late August or early September.
'We have modified lots of small details to limit the effects of this warming:
- Organic driving will tend to slightly delay maturity.
- We have increased the trimming heights (1.40m vs 1.10m). There is thus more shade and this limits the potential to roast the clusters.
- We started practising braiding on certain vines in order to increase the canopy on the row, and thus limit broiling.
- Less trimming in summer, less stripping to maintain better acidity.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'As you have become a big business, is it still possible to stay in touch with your origins?'
DIDIER: 'I am of agricultural origin. My roots are in the ground. I cannot live without it. 80% of my work is related to the vines.
'William Fèvre remains a family structure. We have forty permanent employees and I see everyone everyday.
'Last year I set up a small goat and sheep farm with geese, chickens and donkeys. This was done just for the pleasure of being able to take care of these animals.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Has the United States approach to tariffs caused William Fèvre many problems?'
DIDIER: 'It is still a little too early to say. With the Covid pandemic, the American market has been blocked since March. We have not yet really felt the effects of these taxes.
'I think they will especially impact 'small' wines with a low price. The 'Great' (expensive) wines market will probably be less affected.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Some people say that wine and art are always linked. What was the last work of art you admired?'
DIDIER: 'It's been a long time since I've been to a museum, but I like to contemplate nature.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Which countries truly understand the full potential of Chardonnay outside of France?'
DIDIER: 'Today, I believe that there are connoisseurs in all countries. Of course, some of them are more mature than others. Japan, for example, which appreciates the minerality of Chablis Chardonnays. I can also cite England, Australia, the U.S.A. and the Scandanavian countries...'
WINEFULLNESS: 'You have just released the 2018 Grand Cru Les Clos. What food do you feel supports this beautiful wine?'
DIDIER: 'It is a terroir of great ageing, which produces powerful rich wines with a lot of minerality; It can be paired with rich dishes: fish in sauce, white meats and also cheeses.'
WINEFULLNESS MAGAZINE: 'When is the best time of the year to visit William Fèvre and why?'
DIDIER SEGUIER: 'The best time to visit is definitely spring around May and June. The weather is often very beautiful, not yet too hot. Nature is magnificent during this season.'
One to Try
Simaine Cellars - Sangiovese 2013
I dare you not to enjoy this wine. I can honestly say that I cannot remember the last time I tasted a Sangiovese that was so honest and so pure a representation of the variety.
Victor has a style of making wine that harks back to how Wine Country was at the start, and it shows in the glass. The fruit is candied strawberries, and red cherries lead an orchestra of soothing flavours that babysit your mouth.
I want you all to try this but I'm scared that if you discover how good it is they'll be nothing left the next time I visit, and there will be a next time.
Victor has promised to cook me the best Mexican meal I'll ever eat!
15 Questions for the Hugel Family
A tale from the past in a winery with such a great future.
'People like Victor are often missed, and that is a crime.'
'Château d'Yquem is a timeless wine.'
'Perfection does not exist, but we have to approach it.'
The Judgement of Steven
'We must insist on the quality of the Chablis terroir.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Which question do you wish that I'd have asked, and how would you have answered it?'
DIDIER: 'To conclude, I think we must insist on the quality of the Chablis terroir. It is a terroir which is gifted to make one of the greatest Chardonnays in the world. The whole world envies us for the freshness, the purity and the definition or our wines.'
There are times when I can add very little at the end of an interview and this is a case in point. The Chablis of William Fèvre is everything that Didier claims, but to me it is so much more. To drink a glass of their finest offerings are a statement of intent that in this incarnation Chardonnay is not just an overproduced wallflower, is is the 'belle of the ball' and it must be courted and respected as such!
QUESTION 10: 'Have you thought about growing vines in locations outside of France?'
HUGEL FAMILY: 'Yes, but New Zealand is a bit far. It would have to be in the southern hemisphere to alternate harvests, but also it would have to be a place that can host Riesling and Gewürztraminer. We like our grapes way too much.
'Frankly, I think Riquewihr is way too magical to leave and we are already kept way too busy with our one winery.'
QUESTION 11: 'What, in your opinion, was the last great vintage of Hugel, and what set it apart for you?'
HUGEL FAMILY: '2019? 2018? 2017? 2015? 2010? Hard to tell. These are all impressive years and wines that will defy the XXI century, and maybe even the XXII. We are seeing a series that is absolutely unheard of, and I think we are still far from the end. I wish that more people realised how much we've had to say in the last few years, in terms of vintages for the long ageing and of hardly unparalleled quality.
'Some wine legends were produced recently and the vintages have been very kind to Alsace. The 2010 vintage, which, a bit like the 2019 is expected to show both the power and the warmth of the year, but also the finesse and balance thanks to long and slow ripening. Not sure we have yet understood the greatness of the 2010.'
QUESTION 12: 'What would you say is the most natural food to pair with a Hugel wine?'
HUGEL FAMILY: 'All of them! With so many grapes and so many different styles of wines, I defy you to find me a dish that couldn't be paired with a Hugel wine. I think when you approach Alsace you have to think outside the box. Go past choucroute and foie gras and you might discover that Riesling is equally comfortable with caviar, sushi or ceviches.
'Gewürz' will spice up your life and calm the burn of a very hot Thai curry or fight back a very smokey rack of barbeque ribs. The umami of Pinot gris will work like a charm with a Chanterelle risotto, or a very thick broth. Muscat will advantageously replace a Sancerre with goats cheese. Your imagination and readiness to dare will be the main limit in fact.'
QUESTION 13: 'You go into a bar this evening. What would you order and why?'
HUGEL FAMILY: 'Anything located high enough north or low enough south. You aren't born with your tastes, most of the family trained theirs in an Alsace cellar.'
QUESTION 14: 'How often does Hugel replant?'
HUGEL FAMILY: 'When needed. We keep very close track of the yield of everyone of our 220 plots. If we see a serious drop in production over a period of two or three years we will make that painful decision. We try to keep an average of 30 years of age on the estate, but some of the most senior vineyards are over 85 years old. These are generally the ones that supply our shoots for our massale selection.'
QUESTION 15: 'Which question do you wish I'd have asked, and how would you answer it?'
HUGEL FAMILY: 'It seems like Alsace wines are especially suited for ageing and long cellaring, especially the whites. We aren't used to seeing whites age that long. Why do you think that is the case?'
'White Alsace wines enjoy a particularly long ageing capacity for one main reason in our minds: the sites. In most wine regions, both white and red wines are produced, with often greater praise for red wines. The reason for this is that reds are often sold at a higher price.
'For the producer, it is often a better calculation to plant red grapes on the best spots, where the conditions are the most favourable, and keep the lower areas for the whites. Not in Alsace. Here, by default, the whites have always benefited from much higher praise than the reds. So, they get better spots and produce the best wines. And that is what explains their ability to age. The place has much more to do with ageing than the grape or the winemaking. It is a very simplified concept, but great places make great wines, if you treat them right!'
If you've tasted any of the treasures that the Hugel Family offer, you will heartily agree with this last answer. These are wines to love, to share and to educate those who have yet to take their appreciation of Alsace wines to the next level. As was said above, they go so well with all food and are wines touched by a sense of community. I don't think I can add much more than that!
Pierre Lurton & Château d'Yquem
In conversation with winemaker Didier Sguier
The King of Chablis
WINEFULLNESS: 'Why have the wines of Sauternes and Balzac been under performing in recent En Primeur campaigns?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'The tasting of Sauternes en primeur is always a great success. The wines of this appellation are an immediate pleasure. But unfortunately, in direct competition with the red wines, they seem to be bought by the consumer only later.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'On your website it proclaims that some people enjoy the wine when it is over thirty years old and some enjoy it young. For you, when is the ideal time to take a glass?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'A young vintage of Yquem is a delicacy as an aperitif. And a Yquem over 30 years old is a splendor at the end of a meal as a dessert.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Have wine like Château d'Yquem become tarnished because of the labels, 'dessert' or 'sweet' wines?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'It seems important to me to get away from this idea of dessert wines, which is too restrictive. Moreover, the sugar of the dessert is not the best friend of our wines. And I like to point out that there is always an excellent pretext to open a bottle.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'At the end of a hard day, what does Pierre Lurton do to escape the pressures of the wine industry?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'I find myself in my secret garden: Château MARJOSSE to breathe in the countryside as I walk through the meadows and woods bordering the vines. Then I take a good book to escape.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'With the constant acquisitions of Bordeaux vineyards by big corporations, is there still a place for the small producer when cheque books are waved?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'If you like the quality of life at a lower price, it is always possible to buy in this beautiful region of the Entre-deux-Mers, which I love so much. It is easy to find between meadows and woods, a pretty stone house with a few rows of vines.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'There seems to be a consistent approach at Château d'Yquem. What do you do to make sure that staff turnover is kept to a minimum?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'I keep the qualitative memory of the estate; I perpetuate the tradition with accents of modernity.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Are there times when you have thought about giving up the wine business?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'I started in medical school, but soon I realized that my DNA was taking over and I was going to devote my life to winemaking.
'And I never questioned that decision. It's in the world of wine that I feel good.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you think that below the surface of every French person there is the heart of a wine connoisseur mixed with the mind of a phiolospher, or has the nation moved away from these ideals?'
PIERRE LURTON: 'In every Frenchman, a wine critic slumbers! Criticism is a very French speciality. It is a joke! I really think that French people have in mind the cultural and heritage dimension of wine.'
I love Pierre's comment that inside every Frenchman, a wine critic slumbers, and though there have been moments in the history of French wine when perhaps the ability towards self-criticism has been missing, I feel that the best French wines and the best French winemakers are never far away from the poetry of wine. That understanding of what is in the bottle is a merger of terroir, history, passion and taste that others strive to achieve but that people such as Pierre Lurton naturally understand as part of their business model.
If greatness and class are enternal then, as I gently sip a glass of Chateau d'Yquem, I see no reason why this house of sweet beauty will not continue long into the future.
'In every Frenchman, a wine critic slumbers!'
In Conversation With