Walking into the estate, two things strike me as odd. The first is that saplings have been planted among the rows of vines. The second is that there is no winery.
I’m told that work will begin on a new winery in January. Currently the wine, a Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, is made at Terrazas de Los Andes.
Terrazas de Los Andes is one of the partners in this project. The other is the lauded Bordeaux producer Château Cheval Blanc.
Cheval des Andes, created in 1999, is following the example of its Saint-Émilion parent in planting fruit trees in its vineyards in Las Compuertas and Altamira.
Cheval Blanc uprooted more than 3,000 of its valuable vines to make way for less valuable fruit trees. Cheval des Andes has planted 80 trees per hectare, including plum and pear trees within the vine rows. Other trees, such as the native, aromatic Algarrobo, are creating hedgerows around the vineyards, as well as woodlands and wildlife corridors.
The reason? Climate pressures and growing interest in sustainability.
The wineCheval des Andes’ wine is a Bordeaux blend featuring Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Over recent vintages the blend has varied from 62% Malbec, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon in 2017 to 70% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon in 2018. But in 2019 they hit founder Pierre Lurton’s goal of 50/50.
The long-term idea is to add a little Petit Verdot to the wine, too.
Following my tour of Mendoza to gain inspiration, the takeaway from this beautiful estate is the concerted effort to protect the environment for future generations.
The sustainability project has three pillars:
- Cover crops. Cheval des Andes has stopped tilling the soils and is using cover crops instead. The cover crops will help them to retain water in the desert soils, they believe, and will not compete with the vines. To grow the cover crops, they scatter seeds of indigenous plants at the end of the season. When they grow too tall, they are rolled flat mechanically.
- Agroforestry. They are “using trees like production tools”, according to agronomist Rosario Toso. “You have to imagine a tree in two parts: the aerial part – the canopy and branches that give shelter to birds and bats and insects that will help us to control pests in the vineyards and also give shade to vines – and the underground part. The roots are colonised by a fungi which facilitate the mycorrhizal network that makes connections between the roots of the cover crops, vines and trees. They will share water and different nutrients and pass different kinds of information.” In last two years they have planted more than 1,000 fruit trees in the vineyard.
- Biodiversity. The benefits of increasing biodiversity in the vineyard include attracting more birds (for organic pest control), hedgerows that moderate extreme temperatures and protect vines from strong winds, trees which act as carbon sinks and provide leaf cover, and improved soil structure and water retention.
She says they are not doing it to change the taste of their wines: “We make this to preserve the taste of our wines for future generations and preserve this place.”
Cheval des Andes, which is on its way to organic certification, has also abandoned herbicides, created two organic vegetable and herb gardens and an animal farm for sheep, horses, cows, lamas, and alpacas. The sheep are sheared to make warm clothing for the vineyard workers while all the animals provide natural fertiliser for the gardens and vineyard.
Cheval des Andes has also built its own reservoir – which has enabled it to plant the trees among the vines in this former desert.