France’s 50 best winemakers: Claire Villars-Lurton, winemaker in Bordeaux
Owner and winemaker of Château Haut-Bages Libéral in Pauillac and Château Ferrière in Margaux: “If it was a person my wine would be an opera-singer, like Pavarotti”.
The fifth in Le Figaro Vin’s series brings us back to Bordeaux to meet Claire Villars-Lurton, #46 best winemaker in France, who has embraced biodynamic viticulture to create her exquisite wines at her two estates. In her interview she shares her passion for a vocation to which she has devoted the last 30 years.
Le Figaro Vin: How does it feel to be crowned a winemaking champion?
Claire Villars-Lurton: I am not sure that I am a winemaking champion, but I do feel that I am now on the right path and that I have fully found my feet. When I started there was so much to learn and I really struggled. After a time I wanted to take the lead. Today I feel that everything I have set in train makes sense and that I have a clear grasp of the way ahead.
Have you been training for long?
Yes, for almost 30 years. I have tried a variety of approaches and it hasn’t always been easy. I question almost everything and am never satisfied, which prompts me to challenge myself and also to push my colleagues out of their comfort zone. I cannot bear being comfortable and I don’t like treading water. It is now over 20 years since I took over at Château Haut-Bages Libéral and Château Ferrière. For the last 15 years I have immersed myself in a comprehensive training in biodynamic agriculture. I think it’s wonderful that there is now so much awareness and appreciation of its methodology, so much expertise, research, and literature, all of which paves the way towards an alternative viticulture.
Who is your mentor?
I have a number of mentors. The most important guide on my biodynamic adventure has been Alain Moueix who, crucially, has convinced my colleagues that this is the way forward. Jacques Lurton has shared his expertise on all things wine. Alain Canet (agroforestry adviser to Château Cheval Blanc, ed.) has helped me with the planting of trees in the vineyards. Four or five years ago I, my husband Gonzague (Lurton, owner of Château Durfort-Vivens, ed.), and the agronomist Konrad Schreiber, set up a knowledge-sharing platform for winemakers to pool their experience and expertise, “La Belle Vigne”. I have found this really helpful.
Is wine a team sport?
More than ever, especially when you don’t take shortcuts and don’t introduce cultured yeasts. We have to work with what we have, so we need to operate as a team, from vineyard to cellar. Wine is a team sport played in front of a huge number of spectators who are focused on the product.
What is the key to making a good wine? The terroir or the winemaker?
Always the terroir! But you need both. You can make a poor wine from a great terroir, while a good winemaker can never work miracles with poor terroir.
To what do you owe your success?
I am not sure that I have been successful. I would say that I owe a great deal to my education and my family. I had dynamic parents who refused to rest on their laurels. Mum was a role model, even though she was very young when she left us, and I never got to see her at work. I felt secure in the knowledge that my grandfather, my uncle, and my husband all had my back. Becoming sole owner at 30 developed my sense of responsibility. I knew that my family was always there for me, so now I am delighted by the thought that my children want to take up the reins.
Are your children proud of you?
You would have to ask them, as they certainly won’t tell me, but I think so.
Who is your biggest supporter?
Your favourite colour?
Orange, because it’s a warm, bright colour that’s full of energy. As far as wine is concerned then, of course, it’s red.
The king of grape varieties?
Entirely predictably, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Your favourite wine?
Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2018.
Your favourite vintage?
I really like 2020, which is a bit like 2010.
If your wine was a person, who would it be?
It would be an opera-singer, like Pavarotti. Brilliant and luminous, with a perfect timbre, at once powerful and restrained.
What are the best circumstances in which to taste your wine?
I try to make a wine that can be enjoyed whatever the circumstances. Ideally, it’s when you share it with good friends or with family, at your leisure and with a lot of love.
Have you ever thought about chemically enhancing yourself, or your wine?
Never! I am called Claire and a given name like that means that I cannot cheat. I think our first names determine who we are. I’m a completely open book, so much so that I reveal too much, reveal everything. So absolutely no chemical enhancement for me, not even make-up.
For what price would you be prepared to sell your estate?
Money doesn’t interest me. I will never sell. It’s not money that makes me happy; it’s the tool of my trade, my land, that brings me joy.
Who is your strongest competition in Bordeaux?
My husband. He’s not really a competitor – if he were listening, I don’t think he’d take it very well! – but, all the same, there’s a slight competitive edge between Gonzague and me, which makes us motivate each other and which always keeps us on our toes. We both want to do our best and he is always pushing me to the next level. I try to match him, or even outperform him [laughs]. We really complement each other, and we admire each other a lot; for me to love someone is to admire them.
What is the competition that you fear the most?
People who cheat or use others to get ahead. I try to succeed on my own merits.
What are you most proud of?
What has been your most innovative strategy in the vineyard and in the cellar?
Bringing trees into the vineyard, embracing agroforestry, all the work we put in today to support the soil as a living organism. Our approach is to work organically, from the soil and roots up, to produce robust, healthy grapes more resistant to diseases and parasites.
In the cellar we have developed an innovative approach to protecting our wine against oxidisation, one which allows us to use the least sulphur possible, thereby reducing additives to a minimum. The active ingredient in sulphur is only part of the whole element. Although sulphur is indispensable, its use in the battle against oxidisation can be radically reduced, and that’s where our work is bearing fruit. Indeed, we are pioneers in the field.
Who would be your ideal successor on the podium?
My children, obviously. Inheritance is a central part of our Latin culture. I inherited my property and I want to leave something for the next generation.