When Frenchman François Lurton arrived in the Uco Valley in Argentina, he bought 200ha of land and founded Bodega Piedra Negra. “We were the only winery and I registered the name of the area: Chacayes,” he says. The year was 1996.
Other people came to the area, one by one. Today, he says, Los Chacayes is becoming one of Argentina’s trendiest and best-known wine areas. “There are a lot of hotels and high-quality producers around us and some have come to see me, to see if they can use the name Chacayes,” which is also the name of Lurton’s top wine.
Today, not only is Los Chacayes a DO, but an association of 12 producers was formed in 2019 to study and promote the appellation, which Argentina wine writer Daniel López Roca calls “the new great revolution of the industry”.
Creating a region
Los Chacayes, says Lurton, is like the Medoc. “This place has a particular terroir, a special climate,” says Lurton, adding that this means there is a lot to distinguish it. Today, around 102,500 ha is planted to vines. Given low rainfall and availability of water, the region is unlikely to expand.
Los Chacayes was recognised as a DO by the National Institute of Viticulture in 2017 and Lurton allows other produces to use the name ‘Chacayes’ on their wines, though they need to use a small font and place it at the bottom of the label, as Lurton is the only one with the right to use the name as a brand.
The next step is to increase the region’s visibility as a wine region, which means characterising both the terroir and its wines.
Lurton says that this particular part of the Uco Valley has a different altitude from the rest of the valley, being between 100 and 1400 metres above sea level. “There is a small river in the middle, just behind our property,” which has created its own valley. “We have a part that is lower than the rest, with a different temperature and a different type of soil,” characterised by a lot of stones, with some chalk. “We have some bigger differences in temperature between night and day,” although not as many storms as is usual in the Valley. “It’s a sort of microclimate that protects us and allows us to make a certain type of wines.” He says they can make more acidic wines as a result, with tannins that are somewhat more astringent.
Lurton says he has seen this same acidity and tannin profile in the wines of neighbours, but he points out that “we are a very young association” which is still developing its signature. “It’s the difference between a Pauillac and a Margaux. For someone who is not a great taster, it’s hard to know the difference.”
Lurton believes that, in general, the wines are not as fruity as those in other regions, with grapes that have a low pH. He says that while he can taste similarities in the wines of his neighbours, minor terroir changes can also make a difference. Plus, “everyone has his own way to express Chacayes.”
The French-Argentine connection
Lurton has a long history of pioneering winemaking. His father, Andre Lurton, was instrumental in establishing the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation in Bordeaux. The brothers François and Jacques were also active as consultants, arriving in Argentina in 1992 to work with Catena. When they bought Bodega Piedra Negra in 1996, they initially planted 100 ha with varieties including Friuliano, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. And, of course, Malbec.
Today, the top wines Chacayes and Esprit de Chacayes wines showcase two different faces of Malbec, as Lurton has planted both Argentine Malbec and Côt from southwest France; Côt was the Malbec originally planted in Argentina. Lurton has often said that he believes those original plantings were the best expression of the variety, showing softness and richness. Once in Argentina, the expression evolved as viticulturalists selected vines. He also believes that the original, high quality Côt vines were wiped out in France because of phylloxera. Today’s French Côt has harsher tannins than Argentina’s Malbec.
Argentina is not, it has to be said, the easiest place for winemakers. Although the country is a middle-tier economy, with plenty of natural resources and an educated population, it has lurched from one economic problem to another, not helped by successive governments changing the financial rules as soon as they come to power. The economy contracted in 2018 and then again in 2019, with inflation above 50%. The peso is weak, but as many winery inputs – including equipment – must be purchased from countries with strong currencies, wine production is an expensive business. But Lurton waves away the question of what it’s like to do business on an economic rollercoaster.
“I’ve been in Argentina since 1992,” he says. “I was one of the first there. I’ve seen two devaluations.” Lurton adds that his family has been in wine through “two world wars, so a few economic problems are not going to create a problem for us.”
Argentina, he says, is a paradoxical country where people have learned to thrive, even during times of stress. “There are a lot of producers making wonderful things,” and investing a lot of money. He adds that the international image of the country is completely at odds with its energy and ability to create wines of high quality.
What’s important, he says, is that “there is a great quality of grapes. We can produce great wines.”