Les Fumées Blanches – that is the topic of the tasting. François Lurton, the man behind the wine, is our cicerone. Les Fumées Blanches is the best-selling sauvignon blanc wine at Systembolaget (the Swedish monopoly): in 2015 1.9 million litres were sold. So a really big hitter. Moreover, it is with a good margin the most expensive of all white wines on Systembolaget’s Top-10 list. Why so popular? Yes, that was the question that we would get the answer to.
The word for the day is spelled PURITY (Precision, Uniqueness, Relations, Irreplaceable, Terroir, Youth).
It is a play on words that François uses broadly to describe the work they do to produce Les Fumées Blanches. I will use it, but backwards, just like François, for a summary.
Y – Youth
It is a team of employees who produce the modern in their thinking. François exemplifies with the new packaging of the Swedish bag-in-box. But the big job is to develop production methods where they experiment in several different areas. One subject is the metal screw caps they use. The screw cap is more expensive than cork and different screw caps transmit different amounts of oxygen. Another area concerns the attempt to reduce the alcohol content. A third area is to invest in new equipment to control the oxygenation of the new wine in the production stage. A fourth is to produce increasingly ecologically.
T – Terroir
The climate should also be included here. Today, Les Fumées Blanches is a “vin de france” i.e. the lowest of France’s three classifications which, in contrast to the other two, allow the blending of wines from several regions, while still allowing the grape variety and the vintage year to be indicated. It fits perfectly for Lurton’s purposes. For many years, François and his team has accumulated knowledge of how to grow sauvignon blanc grapes, and others, in different parts of France; Loire, Charente, Bordeaux, Gascony, Tarn and Languedoc. Different areas mean different soils and different climates. It is one of the secrets behind the success of the wine according to François. Mixing different origins with the purpose to create a unique product with the same high quality from year to year.
I – Irreplaceable
Well, here François argues that the wine is irreplaceable because of their skills and long experience in producing sauvignon blanc. Among other things he underlines Systembolaget’s strict requirements in procurements that few others manage to live up to. Personally, I think that from a consumer point of view there are few wines that are irreplaceable no matter how good they are.
R – Relations
Without a doubt François Lurton’s very good reputation in the wine business and the long supplier relationships he has built up over 40 years contributes a lot to the quality in the final product, Les Fumées Blanches. His own vineyard holdings account for only a small part of the area that is needed. It is through long-term agreements with many other wine producers, who supply wine or must, according to his guidelines, that he can ensure both quantity and quality. Many growers are proud to have him as a customer and delivers faithfully. In some geographies, he is clearly dominant. In Gascony and Languedoc, he produces ¼ of all the Sauvignon Blanc in the south of France. It also means that he can exert influence, like now, when he requires that all growers must stop using chemical weed control and have only organic farming. As he says, “the only chemical product found in the wine after fermentation is weed-killer”, so therefore it should be removed.
U – Uniqueness
François Lurton and his wine is unique, I can agree to that. He grew up in the 60s on his father André Lurton’s Château Bonnet in Entre-deux-Mers. Sauvignon blanc had always been one of the biggest grapes there and he helped with the work. After his education, it was just wine that counted, first in his father’s firm and then together with his brother Jacques, when they became known as the flying brothers-winemakers. François is still heading up the business, both in sales and in production. “At harvest time, I have an army of oenologists and I’m the general.” Through this and through his considerable volume of production, which is source across the whole of France, he has created a unique product.
P – Precision
To grow and make wine today is a job that requires a lot of knowledge and high precision. Not only by chemical analysis, but also in the daily work. François hate germs and preaches the importance of cleanliness everywhere. This is very important if one is to be as organic as possible. But everything is not possible to analyse chemically. The agreements with their suppliers stipulates that it is he who decides when the grapes are harvested. His army of oenologists are out in the fields and taste the grapes. It is the only way to ensure that you harvest when the grapes are at their aromatic peak. Not when they are just sugar-ripe. The only way to know how it should taste is to have, as François, done it many, many times before.
Les Fumées Blanches
Finally the result. We start the tasting with a glass of sparkling Les Fumées Blanches. François wanted to do something fun without having an objective of how and when the wine was served. It does not really fit into any compartment and that is perhaps the strength of it. With very little bubbles in the glass, you can also drink it to a seafood starter or to a dessert with lots of acidity or just have it as a social wine a hot summer day. In Sweden, it has not yet become a bestseller. It is available at just over 10 euro.
In Germany, it has been a great hit though. It is a light sparkling wine which enhances the flavour of sauvignon blanc, gooseberries and citrus on the nose, medium-bodied and some peach in the finish.
The first flight of tasting was a terroir tasting comparing sauvignon blanc from the Loire (east of Tours), Languedoc (Minervois, south east of Toulouse) and Gers (west of Toulouse), all from 2015. These are 3 of the 7 areas in the final Les Fumées Blanches blend.
The Loire cuvée had typical grape character, fresh nose with lots of gooseberry, good acidity on the palate, full-bodied and slightly astringent. The Languedoc-cuvée was also typical for the variety, slightly spicy, medium-bodied, round, some hints of truffles and slightly shorter in length. The Gers-cuvée was not as appealing with tones of chemicals, slightly earthy, not as fresh acidity and a little more fruit-salad on the palate.
But it was interesting to hear François give his reasons to the value of having access to so many different wines for the final blend. And also the fact that when all Les Fumées Blanches is bottled, he has about 35-40% of the volume left that he can then resell. This assures that the expansion that he is now considering in the United States can go ahead without causing an issue with the procurement of more wine. Hopefully, keeping the same quality.
The second flight had some news. The first bottle was FL No. 9, 2015. It is François’ experiments with lower alcohol. Combined with a small percentage, 10-15%, of the Colombard grape, and with an earlier harvest of sauvignon blanc grapes in Gascony it will be at 9% alcohol. All the sugar is not fully fermented, about 7 grams of sugar left. The result is a nice and fresh wine, a little softer and rounder, full-bodied and certainly good in a blend.
Wine nuber two was Villa Garros in the new vintage 2015, launched at ~10 euro, and as organic. Good aromatic nose with hints of pear and gooseberry, full-bodied taste with a nice length in the acidity. Good value.
Wine number three was a new wine, Les Fumées Blanches Reserve 2015. The wine will be launched on April 1 at a price of just over 10 euro. It is from selected vats from selected growers that should show the best of Les Fumées Blanches. It is certainly good, full-bodied, fresh and powerful, fine grape aromas, a bit high in alcohol, and good length. But the question is whether the price premium is justified in relation to the main product.
Les Blanches Fumées three vintages is flight number three. The 2012 and 2013 vintages were interesting but the 2015, now being launched, is truly outstanding. It’s a really good sauvignon blanc. The nose is fresh, fruity and vigorous, with a fine acidity and lovely hints of gooseberry, lime, and the some exotic fruits such as passion fruit and pineapple. The palate is medium-bodied with vigorous long acidity on which one can chew a little bit extra. Thus, a truly well-made wine and more than affordable for the nine euro it costs.
So the explanation to why Les Fumées Blanches is so popular is probably that it is a very affordable wine that many people like, produced by someone who knows his job.
Finally, I cannot deprive you of the story of how the name Les Fumées Blanches came about. Robert Mondavi made it easier for the Americans and started in the 60’s in California to call the grape sauvignon blanc instead fumé blanc, with reference to the appellation Pouilly-Fumé that is based on sauvignon blanc. In that region the grapes often turn a little grey before they are harvested. Jacques and François Lurton, in the 90s, were thinking of a name for their wine when it was to be launched in Canada for the first time and thought of fumé blanc. But it means nothing in French. However la fumée means smoke and blanche means white. So they created the name Les Fumées Blanches, the white smoke, and hoped it would be a hit. With 5 million litres sold annually they surely don’t have an issue with the name!
The tasting and the meeting was organised by The Wineagency, François Lurton’s importer in Sweden.
Wilhelm Arnör writes on wine on BKWine Magazine. Wilhelm has been a dedicated wine enthusiast ever since he founded Vincollegiet, a still active wine tasting association at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, in 1976. His day job is running a company in the IT business in Sweden.
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This post is also available in: Swedish