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How to turn ‘a cheap Malbec’ into an iconic wine

By piling on the stress… That’s what the Frenchmen behind the acclaimed Los Chacayes – François Lurton and Thibault Lepoutre – are doing at Bodega Piedra Negra in Argentina’s Alta Uco Valley…


Los Chacayes in the beautiful foothills of the Andes

How to turn ‘a cheap Malbec’  into an iconic wine
  • Chris Boiling
  • 2021-02-23
Los Chacayes, one of the world’s great red wines from Argentina, is evolving. The 2017 vintage, due for release in April, has a few major differences to the acclaimed 2015 – but still shows what can be done with the much derided Côt grape.
For 2017:

  • The Cabernet Sauvignon (10% in 2015) has gone
  • The Côt has increased from 40% to 50%, matching the Malbec
  • The Côt is matured in amphorae for the first time, after fermentation in concrete
  • The grapes are now certified organic but are farmed biodynamically
And the François Lurton wine will continue to evolve. With the current vintage under way in the Alta Uco Valley, winemaker Thibault Lepoutre will try to make Los Chacayes without sulphur until the end of fermentation, even though the Malbec grapes undergo extended maceration – up to 10 days – before fermentation.
The sacrifice they are making to produce wines with reduced SO2 levels is the complexity that could come from native yeasts.
Thibault tells me all François Lurton’s Malbecs used to be fermented with native yeasts “but, for us, it was a bit too risky to do no-sulphur-added and native yeasts. We’ve chosen not to add any sulphur but to control the fermentation process through the yeasts that we use.”
This means they will use a ‘killer’ yeast to take out native yeasts and bacteria and then inoculate with another yeast two days later to complete the fermentation.

Thibault Lepoutre
As Los Chacayes evolves in the coming vintages, Thibault (above) says the next step will be to use selected native yeasts. “This year we are going to send some musts to a company which is going to develop all the yeasts and we’re going to choose the yeasts that come from our vineyard.”
The one thing about this legendary wine that remains constant is the unique site where the grapes grow – a high-altitude semi-desert with one of the highest density plantings in the world.

francois_lurton portrait
François Lurton (above), who produces wines in France, Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina, first discovered and recognised the enormous potential of the Uco Valley in the 1990s while working in partnership with Catena. In search of new terroir, François and brother Jacques found what they were looking for in a tract of land called Los Chacayes, in the beautiful foothills of the Andes. With its 1,100m-high elevation, barren soil, challenging continental climate, melting snow and extreme diurnal variation, the Bordeaux winegrowers knew these slopes would yield vibrant grapes of remarkable character – even though, as François puts it, in “this lonely, arid and wind-swept valley… there wasn’t a vine to be seen anywhere”.
But they were ready to take the risk. They began to plant vines, primarily the Argentine flagship variety Malbec, plus its French relative Côt and a little Cabernet Sauvignon, and established their own bodega, Piedra Negra, in Vista Flores in 1996. After their initial success, other winemakers also found their way to the Uco Valley and 15 years after the launch of the first Los Chacayes wine in 2002, the wine brand’s name was lent to the region to gain protected designation of origin status.

piedra_negra winery
Piedra Negra’s portion covers 136ha in total – 100ha of which are in production – but the grapes for the bodega’s top wine come from two plots of just 0.16ha each “which are very special”, according to Thibault. These 0.32ha produce 4,000 bottles per year.
To the major stress factors of high altitude, low rainfall, and soils that offer the plant minimal reserves of water and nutrients, they heap on another – “competition between the vines”.
The semi-circular plantation in front of the winery – curved to maximise sun exposure – is planted to 20,000 vines per hectare. That’s 1m between the rows and 0.5m between the plants.
All the vineyard work, therefore, is done by hand – with a couple of hired horses coming in a couple of times a year for the heavier work.
About 6ha of the estate, including the 0.32ha that produces Los Chacayes, are farmed according to biodynamic principles but are, so far, only certified organic (since 2016).
To relieve some of the stress on the vines, yield is reduced to two or three bunches per vine.
“Thanks to the competition, we have earlier harvests,” Thibault tells me.
He says by the third week in March the small berries with tough skins are usually ripe but still have high acidity. “The advantage of harvesting so early is that we keep the natural acidity in the berry whereas ripeness of the tannins is already advanced, so that’s why we have a very good balance between the concentration and the freshness of the acidity.”

Elevating the Côt grape

The other unusual thing about this wine is that it elevates the Côt grape, often considered a more rustic version of Malbec with higher acidity and harsher tannins. “But due to our management of the vineyard (having very few grapes per vine), we manage to tame this rusticity and this component of the blend is very important because it brings even more freshness in the nose and acidity in the mouth,” Thibault says.
The official explanation is: “the French grape Côt gives the wine freshness, dynamic tension and vital acidity, while the Argentine Malbec imparts fruit, concentration and depth”.
Because they are so different, the two grapes undergo completely different vinifications. The Malbec berries macerate for 10 days in new oak barriques, protected by a little sulphur. There is no pigéage, delestage or remontage during this period – the barrel is simply rolled along the floor five times every 24 hours.
“This kind of extraction is very gentle,” Thibault explains.
Once the must is inoculated, fermentation lasts two or three weeks – reaching 14.5-15% alcohol.
The wine is left in contact with the skins for another 15 days. Thibault adds: “We take advantage of the strengths and ripeness of the tannins of the Malbec, leaving it in maceration for almost six weeks.”
The more sensitive Côt undergoes an even more gentle extraction process. With fermentation in a concrete tank, “we do some pumping over at the beginning, during the first three or four days (when there is little alcohol and the temperature is still low), but then leave it alone until it ferments to dry,” Thibault says. “We don’t need the structure with the Côt, we want to take advantage of the freshness and we know sometimes the tannins can be a little harsh.”
Straight after fermentation the wine is racked to a new barrel for ageing.

Lurton bottle
Thibault believes Côt is “a fantastic wine if you control the yield” and extraction. While they usually use 20 or 30% in blends with Malbec, last year they launched a Côt varietal in their lower-priced range with no added sulphur. “It’s very interesting because the sulphur is a solvent so when you add in the temperature and alcohol, it extracts some extra tannins from the skins and you are increasing the risk of over-extraction. Since we are working without sulphur in the reds, we have some very good results in extraction with the Côt. Otherwise the wine is a bit rustic.”
With the coming vintage the aim is to make Los Chacayes without sulphur until the end of fermentation. It’s something they’ve been trialling with their Malbec varietals and Cabernet Sauvignons and now have enough confidence to adopt it for their small-batch top wine.
Los Chacayes 2017 was bottled with 75mg/L total SO2 (generally the Bodega Piedra Negra wines have 50-80mg/L total).
Thibault says the blending process is easy, once they have rejected any substandard barrels, because they have only two wines to consider. They start with a blend that would use all the available good barrels and tweak it from there.
The result is a powerful and concentrated red wine that nevertheless remains lively, intense and full of character. Much as François and Jacques predicted when they first set eyes on Los Chacayes.

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