The Buyer
Chacayes shows Francois Lurton as a winemaker ahead of his time

Chacayes shows Francois Lurton as a winemaker ahead of his time

When Bordeaux’s François Lurton planted vines in the semi-desert foothills of the Andes Cordillera, at an altitude of 1100m there were many people questioning his wisdom. But when people tried his red blend Chacayes, a wine that came from five year-old vines there, many followed his example, even establishing a new Geographical Indication of Los Chacayes – named after the wine. Over a lengthy dinner in London Lurton regales tale after tale about being born into Bordeaux ‘royalty’ and, through his Bodega Piedra Negra, putting ‘inhospitable’ areas of Argentina onto the map.

Geoffrey Dean
20th October 2023by Geoffrey Dean
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

“If you have a happy vine, you have a good wine at the end,” says Lurton.

François Lurton at the appropriately-named Maison François, London, September 25

François Lurton still remembers his and his brother Jacques’ reaction when they tasted their very first vintage of Chacayes, made in a semi-desert sub-region of Argentina near Mendoza, where they were the first to plant vines. “In 150 years in Bordeaux, we never produced a wine so intense like the one we have made in this area,” he recalled.

“We said, ‘Shit we’ve got an impressive terroir. How have we made a wine of such concentration, quality and elegance, and with vines of only five years of age…and in a place not producing wine before?’ We decided to give the wine the name of the place we had registered a few years before and not used.”

That was back in 2002, since then the Chacayes label has achieved something approaching cult status. Los Chacayes later became an IG (Indicación Geográfica) within the Uco Valley when new neighbouring planters, who had followed the Lurtons’ lead, requested the name’s use for a new sub-appellation. By then, Francois had bought out his brother’s share in the winery, Piedra Negra, in 2007.

The Lurton family has long been steeped in wine, owning several Bordeaux châteaux, including La Louvière in Pessac-Leognan. Their late father André, who died in 2019, was a notable figure in the region, having been active in establishing the Pessac-Leognan and Entre-Deux-Mers appellations.

Chacayes has been produced almost every year since that revelatory first vintage, a couple having been lost to hail. Lurton considers 2007 amongst the very best but the 2008 which we tasted over dinner with him in London in late September was outstanding.

“Outstanding”: François Lurton and the 2008 Chacayes

“2007 was fabulous but we don’t have any more,” he declared. “2008 was quite warm without being very hot, but is well-balanced and has aged very well thanks to the acidity.” At 1100 metres, the vineyard’s wide diurnal range means that acid retention is seldom an issue.

“You can have some serious variation of vintages in Argentina, but there is not so much variation in Chile, where every year you produce similar wines,” Lurton continued. “The notion of vintages is interesting to follow in Argentina. They don’t have the habit to age the wines but I have forced them to keep the wines. This 2008 Chacayes has an incredible ability to age thanks to this density of tannins and its controlled acidity.”

Some of the Malbec vine material for the wine (85% Malbec and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon) came from Argentina and some Côt from southwest France. It was fermented in barrels, which were sealed and then later rolled to obtain very light extraction. Freshness and brightness are its hallmarks along with impressive weight and structure from firm tannins. The black cherry and damson fruit is very expressive, being well complemented by herbal and floral notes. A well-balanced, rich but very polished wine whose abv of 15.5% is not out of kilter.

Don’t call me Mr Screwcap

“Orange wine is part of my vinification secrets.”

A pioneering viticulturist in Argentina, Lurton was also ahead of his time in Bordeaux with his employment of screw caps there more than 30 years ago. He likes to joke how he is known as ‘Mr Screwcap’ in France. “I was the first to introduce it at Château Bonnet in 1992,” he recalled. “It was an error as they had some cork inside – only in 1996 did they use an aluminium cap. I have plenty of this 2008 Chacayes under screwcap, although now we work a lot with Diams.”

In 2000, after lengthy research in several regions of Chile, Lurton also bought 200 hectares in the Lolol Valley, an offshoot of the Colchagua Valley. A pioneer in what was virgin terroir, he planted vines on poor granite schist soil, farming some extremely steep vineyards under a strict biodynamic and organic regime. He explained his philosophy behind his alluring Hacienda Araucano Clos de Lolol White 2022, which is predominantly drawn from the best Sauvignon Blanc plots, with a splash of Chardonnay.

“I harvest the Sauvignon riper to get peach and white, not green, fruit. I like to avoid the typical style of the grape you will find in other parts of Chile or in South Africa or New Zealand. I ferment all my whites in some oak, and I like to use some skins too. ‘Orange’ wine is part of my vinification secrets.”

Fermented in a third new oak, a third second fill and a third third fill, the wine is matured on fine lees for eight to nine months. Very rounded and generous on the palate, with tropical fruit aromas and some soft spice, it is well balanced thanks to vibrant acidity. Its finish is fresh, complex and long.

Lurton still believes that too many South American producers think wine is made in the cellar and not the vineyard. “In France, everyone knows you make the wine in the vineyard but in South America, they don’t believe that,” he said.

“It is changing little by little thanks to the influence of people like me and foreign consultants like Michel Rolland, who explain to them. The oenologists there do things that we try to stop as they think they can improve the wine in the cellar. I am so organic and so bio as I want the vine to be happy. If you have a happy vine, you have a good wine at the end.” Under Lurton’s devoted auspices, it is hard to see any of his many wines failing to be good.

Francois Lurton’s Argentinian and Chilean wines are imported into the UK by Condor Wines

The current vintage of Piedra Negra Chacayes Single Vineyard is 2017 (RRP £72.49). The current vintage of Araucano Clos de Lolol Red is 2020, the White is 2017 (both RRP £22.99 each).