In search of that je ne sais quoi factor: Tour de Belfort wine

by Tom Fiorina on September 11, 2013

Tour de Belfort owner Eugene Lismonde.

Tour de Belfort owner Eugene Lismonde

Before Eugene Lismonde began making wine in southwestern France, he was a successful businessman in Paris. It all began when this Dutchman purchased a small, cleaning company in the early 1990s that specialized in smoke and fire damage.  That company grew in size and technical expertise, winning such important contracts as cleaning up after the 1999 Mont Blanc tunnel fire that killed 39 people. When he sold the company in 2003 to the Haniel group, a German holding company with operations in more than 30 countries, it had grown to over 500 employees.

Both Lismonde and his French wife Sylvie were 60 years of age at that point. They decided to move back to the U.K., where they had originally met and married. But they wanted to keep a toehold in France. Sylvie Lismonde’s family had lived for generations in the small village of Belfort du Quercy in the Lot region of southwestern France. Originally a bastide, one of the fortified towns built in southwestern France during the 13th and 14th centuries, the villagers reconstructed it a short distance away after the French Revolution. The move allowed the growing population to spread out and to move closer to a passing road that increased commercial traffic with the outside world. Besides, the need to live behind protective walls, important during medieval times when the English and French periodically attacked one another in that region, was over.

The old bastide fell into ruin. Stones from the walls and towers were used to construct new houses and farm outbuildings. It might have stayed that way if Lismonde hadn’t had a hankering to make wine. Beginning before he even sold his business in 2003 he started to make plans. He decided to buy the entire abandoned bastide and what was left of the 13th century castle, fortified walls and towers, along with as much surrounding farmland that he could obtain. Anyone who has tried to purchase just one property in France can appreciate the magnitude of this endeavor.

“Fortunately for me,” he tells it, “my mother-in-law, who was in her 70s then, knew everyone in the village.” He began by buying the family farm that she lived on. With his mother-in-law’s aid (“She had gone to school with this man, she had known this family because their daughter was her best friend, this person was her cousin, this family was…”) Lismonde purchased 35 other parcels of property. He  was ready to create his vineyard.

The beautifully-restored, 13th-century castle serves as the Lesmonde home from August through October, when they are not in London.

The beautifully-restored, 13th-century castle serves as the Lesmonde’s home from August through October, when they are not in London.

Having been a successful business executive, he sought out the best available consultants for advice. Before planting a single vine, he had a Bordeaux-based, soil-analysis company test the vineyard’s clay-limestone soil. After analyzing it, they told him, he says with a laugh, “That if I didn’t plant white wine grapes here, I was a criminal.” This may come as a surprise to those who think that only Malbec grapes grow in Cahors, but increasing numbers of winemakers are making white wine there. French soil experts Lydia and Claude Bourguignon have long said that the limestone Causse (“plateau” in English) in that area is perfect white-wine terroir. The couple has even planted white wine grapes in their own Cahors vineyard.

Actually, the Tour de Belfort vineyard sits just outside of the Cahors appellation, meaning that they label their wine as Vins de Pays, a designation indicating that the wine comes from a particular region, from a list of allowable grape varieties, and that it was subject to testing and analysis. These VdP wine regions tend to be larger than an AOC/AOP region, and the choice of grape varieties is often wider.

The second consultant Lismonde contacted was Swiss winemaker-œnologue Didier Joris from the Valis Canton in the Swiss Alps. Based on the soil analysis, Joris (whom Lismonde has long known) recommended planting half of the 10-ha vineyard with white grape varieties (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Semillon and Viognier) and half with red grape varieties (Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah).

With soil analysis and planting out-of-the-way, Lismonde turned his attention on creating a modern winery. He visited over 40 wine cellars in France, Italy and Spain, asking the winemakers what they would do differently if they could rebuild their cellars. None of the existing stone structures in the village, which have all been renovated and turned into vacation rentals (although he prefers calling them “hospitality accommodations”) and a conference center complete with tasting facilities, fit his needs.

The immaculate Tour de Belfort winery with custom stainless-steel tanks (those closest to Lismonde).

The immaculate Tour de Belfort winery with custom stainless-steel tanks (those closest to Lismonde).

The large, stone winery that he had built on the edge of the renovated village has three levels, allowing the vertical movement of the grapes from their arrival in the cellar through fermentation and onto the wine’s aging in barrels without the use of any pumps. No cost was spared in equipping the cellar: the Rolls-Royce of grape presses, a Bucher Vaslin Inertys horizontal press that uses inert gas to prevent oxidation during the pressing, rows of temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks that were custom-built to his specifications (they are as wide as they are tall to maximize skin contact of the grapes), and 228L oak barrels from the Burgundy Tonnellerie Rousseau.

Lismonde also has enlisted the help of a young œnologue to manage the vineyard work and winemaking. A tractor driver, who sprays a copper-sulfite solution against fungal infections, the only treatment used on the vines since they have been treated organically since being planted in 2005 and 2007, and who controls weed growth by mowing the vegetation that is left between the rows, completes the staff. Much like the captain of a Formula One team, Lismonde proudly showed off his newest acquisition—a 700kg caterpillar-style tractor that uses rubber treads so it doesn’t compact the soil. Although not the price of a racecar, the €30,000 tractor from Switzerland is still a large investment for a 10-ha vineyard.

Is all of this investment, effort and planning worthwhile? Certainly, 12 medals, including several from the prestigious Concours Général Agricole de Paris, in four vintages seems to indicate that Tour de Belfort whites and reds, a rosé, and naturally sparkling white and rosé wines are excellent.

But one cannot stop and think that this might be an example of the old adage that to make a small fortune in wine, one needs to have started with a large fortune. In a bit of rhetorical, out-loud thinking, he said: “Could it be, at age 70, that we (referring to himself and his wife) have made our first mistake?”

The intent of that remark wasn’t immediately clear, but then I realized that this very successful businessman might be questioning his winemaking strategy. He had done everything right, from getting the best possible advice; investing in good land and vines, building and equipping a well-designed cellar; and then hiring knowledgeable and qualified people to run the entire thing.

“You know,” he continued, “wine is like no other product. If you make a good product, you should be able to sell it at the right price. This isn’t always the case with wine, he added.”

The “right price” he has chosen for Tour de Belfort wines starts at  £10 (€12) for the white blend of Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc and goes to £15.50 (€18.50) for the 100% Chardonnay aged in oak barrels and the Malbec and Cabernet Franc red wine blend. And that’s the online price from the Tour de Belfort website or purchased directly at the winery or at the wine shops that have been opened in the U.K. and in Switzerland.

This is considerably higher than the majority of wines from southwestern France. Only a small number of “vedettes” (star winemakers, in English) in the region obtain these prices for their wines. For most, it’s because of reputations built up over generations, their exceptional viticultural and/or winemaking expertise, particularly astute marketing or public relations acumen, their force of personality, or some combination of all of the above.

“In France,” he explains, “you have a two-model wine-distribution system. There are supermarkets and the Nicolas wine shop chain that sell 75 to 80% of the wine. Cavistes (wine shops) and restaurants sell much of the remaining bottled wine, with a minor amount sold directly at the vineyard.

“The Grandes Surface supermarkets squeeze the margins until there is nothing left for the producer. The cavistes and restaurants are mainly interested in selling wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Côte-du-Rhône and Alsace.  Not many have even heard of Côte de Lot wine,” he adds with a shrug.

Armed with his multiple Concours awards and having convinced several distributors in France and the U.K. to carry his wines (“Once they tasted it, they were convinced of its quality,” he says), sales began trickling in. “Problem was,” he explains, “you’d go back in three months, and the wine was still on their shelves.”

Testimony to the care and authenticity of the renovation work used in the old village. This structure was built to house an electric power sub-station that needed to be installed because the winery uses more electricity than the rest of the Belfort de Quercy village.The door on it comes from a 15th-century women's prison once used in Bordeaux.

Testimony to the care and authenticity of the renovation work used in the old village: this structure, which looks like a chapel from the Middles Ages, was built to house an electric power sub-station that needed to be installed because the winery uses more electricity than the rest of the Belfort du Quercy village. The door on it comes from a 15th-century women’s prison once used in Bordeaux.

Facing resistance to his pricing strategy, and realizing the difficulty of cutting costs (there’s not an enormous market for a southwestern France bastide renovated specifically for wine tourism, and the wine cellar and vineyard equipment that he has invested in are essential for making quality wine), and how was he going to lay off his daughter, Muriel, who had been the juggernaut in a William the Conqueror-style attack on the British wine market?

Muriel wasn’t present the day I visited the Tour de Belfort winery one hour north of Toulouse, but evidence of her marketing and organizational skills were evident in the form of a lunch expertly prepared by Jason Palin, an executive chef she has recruited to run a cooking school in Hale, a community in Cheshire, England. She had been selling wine directly in the U.K. through Three Wine Men events (wine-and-food-tasting events organized by three, well-known British wine experts, Oz Clarke, Ollie Smith and Tim Atkin), through the company website and through special corporate events, like the launch of new Mercedes automobiles.

Le Vin La Table, part wine shop-part cooking school, run along with Palin, offers a way to get people to taste the Tour de Belfort wines. And evidently they liked what they had tasted, as sales began to increase. “With the cooking school,” Lismonde père says, “we doubled our sales.” This is still only around, he told me, “three to five thousand bottles a year,” out of what I estimate as a potential production capacity of over 25k bottles annually (20hl of wine per hectare x 10ha= 20,000L).

There are plans underway to extend this, what might be called an Apple or luxury-goods distribution strategy, using own-brand stores in the form of wine and cooking schools, to Switzerland (Montreux) and to Belfort du Quercy in France. And I think, after tasting the cooking of Chef Palin, along with the property’s wines that accompanied it, that it bears watching. Actually, this is similar to the Sud de France strategy of opening Maison Sud de France locations in major international cities to promote the region’s food and wine, and tourism opportunities.

Both the white and red Tour de Belfort blends have the same pure fruit and technical excellence. There is proper balance between the fruit, sugar and acidity, with the limestone soil bringing, in the case of the whites, a nice Chablis-style minerality. The fully ripe tannins in the reds are delicious, and my only criticisms are that the 100% Chardonnay could do, for my taste, with a little less oak, and, more critically, that all of the wines are faultless, but rather austere.

They can teach you in œnology school how to make technically perfect wines that will pass analysis tests, but to make fine wine takes something else. What the French call je ne sais pas or “terroir.” I think that the Tour de Belfort certainly has the potential to produce distinctively exceptional wines, which merit a premium price, but it’s going to take some time.

Just go up on the Causse plateau to look at these young vines in their 300-meter-high, natural limestone amphitheater. The biodiversity is there, with trees and shrubs as far as one can see. No other vineyards are in sight, where a not-so-ecologically-minded vigneron might be spraying his vines with chemicals. These are healthy vines that will put down deep roots, drawing up, one hopes, that special terroir effect that will raise the wines above themselves, to a level more than justifying their price. Wines, in effect, from somewhere, not wines that might have been made anywhere.

Getting there will take time, and when Sylvie Lismonde says that they want to leave something to their grandchildren more than just bills, I can understand. I’m not pretentious enough to tell her that she should trust in her husband’s judgment to make such an investment in time, energy and money to place such a wager on this unproven terroir.

But if he does strike terroir with all of his efforts and investment, then Eugene Lismonde will leave his children and grandchildren something more than bills. He’ll have left them a legacy that will continue to grow.

"There's terroir down there somewhere. I can feel it in my feet..."

There’s terroir down there somewhere. I can feel it in my feet…


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