Ten years ago, when the board of Château d'Yquem fired him, president and former owner Count Alexandre de Lur Saluces was expected to fade into the Sauternes sunset.
Instead, Lur Saluces picked himself up off the mat. The 80-year-old aristocrat continues making great Sauternes a few miles away at his Château de Fargues. Here, since 2005, he has produced seven wines in the outstanding range or better by Wine Spectator. The most recently released, 2009 (97 points), sold for $170.
Not bad for a man who doesn't even consider himself a winemaker.
"Here, we are farmer-poets," said Lur Saluces, flashing a boyish, gap-toothed smile as he greeted visitors in a tweed jacket and tie.
Indeed, if wine can be said to be poetry, the Lur Saluces family created some of the revered classics at Yquem over more than two centuries of control. That ended—after a long, bitter family feud—with the sale of majority control to the LVMH luxury-goods conglomerate in 1999. After his ouster in 2004, Lur Saluces turned his exacting attention to Fargues, which came into his family before Christopher Columbus reached America.
Fargues today is 400 pastoral acres, about 30 miles southeast of Bordeaux in the heart of the Sauternes appellation. The estate, two-thirds pine forest, includes corn fields, breeding grounds for Bazadaise cattle, 40 acres of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, and the ruins of an imposing medieval fortress, destroyed by fire in the 17th century.
Lur Saluces, its sole owner, will this year be joined by his son Philippe, returning from Asia, where he has represented Fargues and other Bordeaux wines. But the aging aristocrat has no thoughts of retirement.
In Bordeaux, he is a wine icon—simultaneously old school and new wave. He is a no-shortcuts traditionalist, advocate for green agriculture and an unpretentious ambassador for a prized and quirky sweet wine produced with grapes desiccated by the spread of Botrytis cinerea mold.
"We don't have an enologist, we don't have a winemaker," said Lur Saluces, standing at the edge of a vineyard. "We have our harvesters."
Getting the right grapes for making traditional Sauternes is as laborious as wine gets. At Fargues, in five pickings over weeks, only mature botrytized grapes are selected. Half the fruit is left in the vineyard.
Estate manager Francois Amirault ferments the wine in oak barrels, where it is then aged three years in the château's cellar, which was fashioned from an old barn. Annual production is about 1,250 cases, and in bad years the wine is sold off in bulk. Lur Saluces is uncertain whether he will release the 2012 vintage.
These painstaking methods are those he preserved when he took over Yquem in 1968-a time, Lur Saluces wryly remembers, when "the people of Bordeaux whispered that Yquem was over—that the system of working could not continue."
The goal, Lur Saluces insisted, is an often-misunderstood nectar: "not a sweet wine, but a blinding explosion of flavors."
Comparisons between Fargues and Yquem are inevitable. Lur Saluces said Yquem's advantage is more than 250 acres from which to choose the best grapes. Fargues' asset, he said, is its smallness, allowing viticulture on a scale of "gardening."
Yquem, of course, remains in a class of its own—at the top of Sauternes' 1855 Classification as the only Premier Cru Supérieur. Fargues, which long made red wine and was only replanted for making Sauternes in the 1930s, remains unclassified, a fact that doesn't bother Lur Saluces.
"My ambition," he said, "is only to make the best Sauternes possible."
Besides, the count has been too busy to worry about such distinctions. In the past decade, he has managed the meticulous renovation of its medieval fortress, and the western wing has just been completed.
"People ask me, 'When will you finish?'" Lur Saluces said, nearly bounding up a set of stone stairs in the castle tower. "I don't want to ever finish."