BEIRUT: French winemaker Pierre Lurton leads a double life. He works and lives between two of the most esteemed wineries in the world as the head of Chateau Cheval Blanc, to one side, and Chateau d’Yquem, to the other.
In between, Lurton bottles wines from his own land in Bordeaux, France. Aside from Lurton, the two legendary estates share the diverse terroir of the Bordeaux region, an iconic standing among wine connoisseurs and, of course, a luxury price tag. The Phoenicia Hotel in Downtown Beirut hosted the winemaker this week for an exclusive wine tasting event that highlighted five vintages from Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau d’Yquem and is now offering the high-end wines as part of the a la carte menu at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant Eau du Vie.
“The Phoenicia is a mythic hotel,” Lurton said, sipping lemonade in the lobby lounge. “It’s an amazing place for Chateau d’ Yquem and Chateau Cheval Blanc. I think they have the same philosophy of quality.”
Cheval Blanc, from the Saint-Emilion region of Bordeaux, is a velvety red wine made from merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Merlot tends not to age well, so the addition of cabernet grapes allows for complexity to build with time. In Lurton’s poetic explanation, “the cabernet takes the merlot on a long trip.”
“The Cheval Blanc is atypical. It’s difficult to compare it to another wine. To me, it is a cashmere wine – the taste of the tannin is like a touch of the cashmere,” he said, adding a more practical reason for the comparison. “Also, it’s cashmere because it’s very expensive.”
At its cheapest, a bottle of from one of these wineries, say a Chateau d’ Yquem 2011, will cost around $400. Though many of us will never taste their complexity – flavors that lead wine collectors to spend thousands of dollars on a 50-year-old vintage – the history of these wineries, particularly Chateau d’Yquem, is alluring in its own right.
Chateau d’Yquem, operating for more than 400 years old, makes a sweet white wine prized for its longevity. Vintages from the 1800s are still dug up, auctioned off for exorbitant prices and savored alongside plates of foie gras.
Among Yquem’s historic fans are the Russian Romanov family, Japanese emperors and American founding father Thomas Jefferson, who, chateau legend has it, gave 100 bottles of the 1787 vintage to George Washington as a present.
“I have two or three bottles [from 1787] in my private cave at Chateau d’Yquem,” he said, though he predicts these would be better savored as a museum relic than drunk.
Lurton has been coming to Lebanon for 25 years; in that time, he has accumulated friends, some of whom are great lovers of Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau d’Yquem. Among them is Lurton’s good friend Etienne Debbane, CEO of Exotica Group, for example.
Scheduled to leave the next afternoon, Lurton lamented his brief stay: “Two days in Lebanon is stupid.”
Sprinkling his poetic-sounding English with bits of French, Lurton called it “Franglais,” he spoke of the two wineries without the scripted response so often offered by visiting brand ambassadors. Lurton described with passion, often breaking into spontaneous laughter, the expertise that is required to bottle Chateau d’Yquem.
The hilltop vineyard of Chateau d’ Yquem is flanked by a river and large forest, which together create a daily climate that fluctuates between humid, foggy morning and breezy dry afternoon. Those conditions promote the growth of a fungus called Botrytis, referred to by winemakers as “noble rot” and which helps concentrate the flavor of the grape. Lurton described the fungus as Chateau d’Yquem’s “magic mushroom.”
The harvesting process is so precise that in some years, such as in 2012, the entire crop has been deemed unfit for Yquem wine, Lurton said. The grapes are sold anonymously, and the estate produces no wine that year.
When it comes to trends, globally, palettes have recently moved away from sweet wines such as those at Chateau d’Yquem, in favor of drier varieties. Lurton didn’t seem very concerned by that, as he said the name and history of the winery affords it a sort of protection from changing tastes.
“The revolution of the wine continues, and today, for ladies the sweet wine has a lot of calories. And for people in general, when I put Yquem at the end of the dish for the dessert or for the fois gras, it’s [too heavy] for the people,” he said.
“[But] you have a lot of Yquem lovers around the world. The Yquem is an amazing wine and it’s a luxury brand.”
Of the two wines, Yquem is the more versatile when paired with food because whites tend to be more flexible than a spicy red such as Cheval Blanc. Lurton suggested drinking young Yquem, such as 2011, as an aperitif instead of sparkling wine, alongside a subtle dessert like sweetbread, or pairing an older vintage with Comte or gorgonzola cheese.
As for Lurton’s preference: “My second passion is sailing, I have a mahogany sailboat. I come with my friend, [and bring] a steak of salmon sashimi and a bottle of Yquem.”