When the world’s leading luxury brand owner (LVMH) takes two of their top winery brands (Cheval Blanc and Terrazas de Los Andes) and backs them to create a new winery under the aegis of one of the world’s greatest living winemakers (Pierre Lurton of Cheval Blanc and Chateau d’Yqem), you know it is going to be something amazing. What you may not have guessed is just how amazing the wines from their project (Cheval des Andes) are.
We recently visited Cheval des Andes and had dinner at their gorgeous tasting room in the middle of their vineyard at the base of the Andes Mountains outside of Mendoza, Argentina.
Hosting us was Charles Gotchac who recently came to Argentina from St. Emilion where he was working at Cheval Blanc. Charles is a wonderfully engaging young man and was extremely helpful in taking us through the vineyard and explaining all things about this wonderful terroir as well as taking us through a tasting of several vintages of Cheval des Andes.
The pedigree of Cheval des Andes could not get any higher. LMVH, (formerly Louis Vuitton Hennessy Moet) and Cheval des Andes’ ultimate owner, is THE ultra luxury brand owner.
70 different houses make luxury goods for LVMH including Christian Dior, Tiffany’s and Givenchy, among others. But their portfolio within the wine and spirits world is truly unmatched: Dom Perignon, Krug, d’Yquem, Glenmorangie, Hennessy and Veuve Cliquot, to name several, and, at near the top of that pyramid, Cheval Blanc. Cheval Blanc is the ultra recherche wine from St Emilion in Bordeaux’s Right Bank that is one of the most highly regarded, collectible, and therefore among the most expensive wines, in the world.
Founded in 1832, Cheval Blanc is one of only 4 wineries classified as “Premier Grand Cru Classe A” and could not be more admired. To partner with Cheval Blanc would be the highest honour in the wine world, and something Cheval Blanc has never done, with the exception of Cheval des Andes.
Pierre Lurton, President of Cheval Blanc, was visiting Mendoza in the mid 1990s. There he tasted some of the Malbec being produced at Terrazas de Los Andes and was very impressed. He decided that he wanted to do something with the Malbec grape and so the idea of Cheval des Andes was born.
Malbec has great historical significance in the wine world, especially to a Bordelais such as Lurton. Charles Gotchac explained to us as we walked through the beautiful Las Compuertas vineyard, one of two that Cheval des Andes owns, just how significant Malbec is. “Before phylloxera struck Bordeaux in the 1860s, Malbec was the most planted grape in the region. When the 1855 Classification ranked the vineyards First Growth, Second Growth and so on, they were ranking them largely on what the vineyards were doing with Malbec. After phylloxera, the Malbec was ripped out and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon. But the classifications never changed.”
Las Compuertas is a high elevation vineyard, sitting at over 3,000 feet, at the base of the Andes Precordillera, the foothills to the Andes. This vineyard covers 86 acres and is planted mostly to Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as a little Petit Verdot. The vineyard was adjacent to a polo field and in 2013 the last polo match was played and the field was planted to vines. A short distance away in the Uco Valley is their other vineyard, La Consulta, comprising 37 acres made of mostly older Malbec vines. Due to the lack of phylloxera (a vine-eating pest) problems in the region, the vines can be planted on their own root stocks.
The vineyards are meticulously attended. Water is a problem throughout Mendoza. It is regulated by a central board who releases water to the vineyards, not when they need it, but when the regulatory board has it. Cheval des Andes has created their own reservoir so they can apply water to the vineyards as needed. Water is applied via flood irrigation as opposed to the more common drip irrigation. Flooding the vineyard serves two purposes: first it has the effect of drowning any potential phylloxera louses before they can develop to the point of attacking the vines and second, it causes the water to penetrate deeper into the limestone soil drawing the roots downward to a greater depth.
In Mendoza, pests and other vineyard disease is not often a problem. The climate is such that in most vintages the grapes will fully ripen. The biggest risk their vineyards face is hail. The hail there can come down with such force that it will smash the berries and the leaves and almost destroy the vineyard. Losing half of the crop or more is a real probability. To reduce this risk, many vineyards cover their vines with nets that stop the hail from hitting the vines. There are two problems with this system: the first is that it is very expensive to acquire, assemble and take down these nets. The second is that the netting filters the sunlight, and some think this action can somewhat inhibit the photosynthesis required to ripen the grapes. Cheval des Andes only uses nets on their oldest and best blocks of Malbec at Las Compuerta.
Charles took us to an edge of their property where other agricultural activities took place. Horses and pigs are raised there as well as a vegetable and herb garden. One fascinating feature was the pantry they created by converting some old stables. The collection of dried meats, herbs and fermented fruits and vegetables was any cooks dream room!
As we walked back to the tasting room to have dinner and taste the wines, we had to pick up the pace a bit because the clouds were rolling in and we could hear the grumbling of thunder. We got back just in time as the storm began in earnest. The sky was lit up with incredible flashes of lightening. We stood outside and watched it in awe for almost 15 minutes until we were called inf for dinner. The storm managed to carry on through most of dinner!
Our dinner was prepared by the winery’s chef using all ingredients sourced from their farm. The meal was spectacular. It was our last night in Argentina, and we had been eating plenty of meat at various Asados along the way. To shake things up we had a delicious mushroom lasagna which paired brilliantly with four different vintages of Cheval des Andes.
The wines were nothing short of amazing! There is an elegance and a finesse to these wines that many aspire to, but few actually achieve. In this way they were certainly reminiscent of Bordeaux. But there was an underlying power to the wines as well, not obtrusive, but subtly present and speaking to their New World origins. To our palates, a bit more Old World in style than New World, but we can see that opinions may be divided on that. But we doubt there would be much division as to an assessment of their quality. Truly a Grand Cru of South America.
2014 Cheval des Andes
A great way to start the evening. The 2014 is all about elegance. The nose has a lovely perfumed quality as it unfurls above the glass. Violets and cassis. Flavours of black cherry with supporting notes spice and a slight earthiness. The body and acid are both medium. The balance struck between them is just what you want from a finesse driven wine which creates a sensation of smoothness with texture on your palate. Charles tells us this was a rainy, challenging vintage. Yet there is no evidence of any difficulties in our glasses, no green notes, no steminess. A real testament of what the great crus can produce in a difficult vintage. 83% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot.
2015 Cheval des Andes
This next vintage takes further down into the dark fruit end of the spectrum. Cassis, plum and blackberry come through with great intensity. Still showing the vineyard’s trademark elegance, but now the dials have been turned up. At age four it is already complex and shows different notes each time you return to the glass. With some swirling and some air we coax out the secondary notes of earth and spice. The greater warmth of the 2015 vintage infuses the character of the wine but it still remains fresh. The tannins have not yet been polished and those seeking smoother textures will be even more delighted with a few more years in the cellar. But there is no mistaking the greatness of this wine today and it shows all the potential of a classic in the making. This balance, this intensity and this complexity are the elusive combination that every wine lover is chasing. 61% Malbec; 39% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Extraordinary (a rating we find reason to give out less than a handful of times in a year)
2016 Cheval des Andes
Perhaps the most captivating nose of the evening, the aromas are very floral, showing violets intermingled with black fruits. The blackberry and black cherry notes are joined with a slightly herbaceous quality which does not distract from the fruit but adds a degree of freshness. Definitely showing its youth, to us it showed more in common with the 2014 than the 2015. The tannin and acidity are a bit more pronounced at this stage and suggest this is a wine with great aging potential. The structure defines but does not overtake the wine and allows the gorgeous texture to peek through and show its potential for development.
2008 Cheval des Andes
As a special treat, Charles went off the script to finish the evening and opened us a bottle of the 2008 from their cellars. From Magnum no less! At age 11 this was mature but likely still on the way up and added punctuation to the aging potential of these wines. Charles explained to us that in the first decade of its existence, the winery strived to produce a consistent style from vintage to vintage. In 2011 they made the decision to shift to expressing the character of the vintage, the “cru”, over any particular house style. Compared to the more recent vintages we tasted, the 2008 seemed riper, perhaps a bit more “Napa”. Masculine and slightly more extracted, the leaning in this vintage was more to power over finesse. Style, like beauty, is always in the eyes of the beholder and this will draw many fans of bolder wines.