Jacques Lurton’s Kangaroo Island adventure

In 2000, renowned French “flying winemaker”, Jacques Lurton, established an 11-hectare vineyard on Kangaroo Island. His business at the time made wine around the world, with Lurton and his winemakers, including Australians, hopping from one country to another.

In 2007 Lurton sold out to his brother and partner to concentrate on his own French and Australian brands. By then, says Lurton, he’d experienced 60 vintages across 25 regions in 10 countries.

An oenology graduate from the University of Bordeaux, Lurton worked initially for his father, a major vineyard owner in Bordeaux. But in1984 he visited Australia for a vintage with McWilliams in Griffith, New South Wales. Then in 1985 he joined Brian Croser at Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills – developing friendships with influential Australian winemakers, including Croser and his then business partner, Dr Tony Jordan.

The Australian connections endured. Over the coming decades Lurton employed 10 Australian flying winemakers, and visited Australia at least once a year from 1984.

In Canberra last week he said because of the strong connection “I decided to make my own investment and, ideally, live half of my time here”. With the help of McLaren Vale based David Paxton, Lurton eventually selected Kangaroo Island.

He subsequently planted 11 hectares to cabernet franc, grenache, shiraz, malbec, viognier, semillon and sangiovese, and established a winery on a site, “about in the middle of the island”.

By the time Lurton parted the flying winemaker business in 2007, he’d acquired from cousins in Bordeaux a six-hectare merlot vineyard, La Martinette. And in the Loire Valley he’d established long-term relationships with sauvignon blanc growers in Touraine and Pouilly.

Therefore the Jacques Lurton brand (see www.jacqueslurton.com) now includes two Loire sauvignon blancs, Touraine Sauvignon and Pouilly Fume; one Bordeaux merlot, Domaine de la Martinette; and a range of Islander Estate Vineyards wines from Kangaroo Island.

Partly because of his Bordeaux background, Lurton selected cabernet franc as a flagship variety, originally to pair it in a blend with sangiovese. He says, “I’ve worked with cabernet franc in the Loire Valley and, in Bordeaux, at St Emilion and also a little bit in Pomerol. It makes fragrant, fresh and elegant wines and they age well”.

As well, he adds it’s tough variety and easy for grape growers to look after. Aptly for Australian growers, it resists heat well, he says, citing its success in Bordeaux’s searingly hot 2003 vintage.

He says cabernet franc originated in Navarra Spain. But it’s now widely planted in south-western France, including Bordeaux, where it’s used mainly as a blending variety — as it is here in Australia.

Kangaroo Island cabernet franc appeals to Lurton because it “avoids the herbaceousness” of the cold-to-marginal Loire climate and cooler Bordeaux vintages.

Lurton’s first flagship Kangaroo Island red in 2004 included a fairly high proportion of sangiovese with the cabernet franc. But observing how the sangiovese matured more rapidly than the cabernet franc, Lurton wound back the sangiovese to just six per cent in the just-released 2005 and even further in subsequent years. There’s also a smidge of malbec in future vintages, he says.

For trademark reasons he also changed the name from Islander Estates Yakka Jack (named after a local soldier settler) to The Investigator, after Matthew Flinders ship, an early white visitor to the island.

In Canberra for the launch last week, Lurton lined up The Investigator 2005 ($60) with three French cabernet francs – giving us a snapshot of very different styles, two from the Loire, the other from St Emilion, Bordeaux.

St Nicolas de Bourgueil Les Malgagnes 2006, from a biodynamic vineyard at Bourgueil, Loire Valley, showed cabernet franc’s gently plush, ripe-berry elegance – an otherwise alluring, elegant wine, marred by a touch of brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast).

Chinon Clos de L’Echo (Couly-Dutheil) 2005 bounced in like a heavyweight after the elegant Bourgueil. Densely coloured and opulent of cabernet franc, it showed traces of herbaceousness despite its fifteen per cent alcohol. Lurton attributed this to alcohol extracting unripe tannins from the seeds and skins. But the herbaceousness was a minor blemish in an otherwise delicious, albeit big, wine.

Le Petit Cheval St Emilion Grand Cru 2003, second wine of legendary Chateau Cheval Blanc, supported Lurton’s views on cabernet franc in hot years. His cousin, Pierre, runs Cheval Blanc and in the severe heat of the vintage found little but cabernet franc suitable. The blend ended up at 95 per cent cabernet franc, five per cent merlot – a big shift from the usual 60:40 ratio.

What a wine, though: limpid and complex, combining fully ripe cabernet franc berry character with age and oak – a fragrant, soft, elegant and delightful drink with a distinct Bordeaux stamp, despite the heat.

And finally, to Lurton’s The Investigator 2005 – a limpid, bright, youthfully coloured wine, featuring fragrant, ripe-berry varietal character, soft, gentle palate and elegant, persistent tannin structure. It’s an exciting wine indeed, based on one quick tasting. We’ll review it fully after we can put it to the full-bottle test.

The Investigator and other Jacques Lurton wines, including Old Rowley, reviewed today, are distributed in Canberra by Bill Mason’s Z4 group.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011