Bordeaux Adapts with New Grapes

In entry-level bottlings, winemakers can begin using Touriga Nacional, Marselan and other varieties chosen for suitability in a changing climate

Bordeaux Adapts with New Grapes
French viticultural engineer Agnès Destrac-Irvine examines vines in an experimental vineyard just outside the city of Bordeaux. (Courtesy INAO)
Feb 26, 2021

Ready for a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Marselan? Last month, the French organization that governs wine appellations approved six grape varieties to be added to the grapes currently allowed for the production of Bordeaux entry-level wines, AOC Bordeaux and AOC Bordeaux Supérieur, with other categories expected to follow. Vignerons hope the new grapes will prepare the region for a changing climate.

"A fascinating direction, illustrating one of the many steps Bordeaux is taking to prepare for the future," said Allan Sichel, general manager of négociant Maison Sichel. "We will be planning on planting some of these varieties soon."

The move follows 11 years of research at Plot 52, an experimental vineyard in Pessac-Léognan planted to 52 grape varieties to determine their suitability for a warmer, drier Bordeaux. "Like all French viticulture, the appellation sector is faced with climate change and the necessary ecological transition," Laurent Fidèle, INAO delegate from Aquitaine’s Poitou-Charentes region, told Wine Spectator. "In this context, the appellation specifications must allow for the controlled evolution of grape varieties."

Weather is growing hotter and drier across Bordeaux, drawing a big question mark over the viability of today's varieties to deliver the quality, characteristics and volume required for sustainability in coming decades.

If wine regions are to be resilient, they must adapt. This is where the new varieties come in. The recently approved varieties are Touriga Nacional, Castets, Marselan, and Arinarnoa for reds; Alvarinho and Lilorila for whites.

"Obviously we are looking for balance, freshness, elegance, harmony, good acidity, resistance to heat and drought," said Sichel.

It comes down to the ideal ripening window, which in Bordeaux falls between Sept. 10 and Oct. 10. "The driving idea behind this project is you make great wines if you harvest at the end of September or early October, not if you harvest in August," Professor Kees van Leeuwen, the viticulturist in charge of the project, explained to Wine Spectator. "If your grapes ripen in August or July, the hottest part of the summer, your fruit is unbalanced—too low in acidity, too much sugar, not good aromas—and so historically growers have always planted varieties that in their local climatic environment ripen at the end of the season."

But with climate change, warmer temperatures mean that flowering, veraison and ripening come earlier and earlier. "The risk with climate change is that the varieties move out of their ideal ripening window. They ripen earlier and earlier, and there is the risk one day that they will ripen in August," said van Leeuwen. "Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc will be the first casualties."

As an early ripening variety, Merlot is on track to move out of its ideal ripening window by 2035–’40, according to climate projections. And 66 percent of Bordeaux's red wine vineyards are planted to Merlot.

Still an experiment

Winegrowers can begin planting the new varieties this year. Does this mean Bordeaux châteaus will soon be bottling Cab-Touriga blends? Not so fast.

The INAO approval comes with considerable restrictions. Only 5 percent of the vineyard surface can be planted with the new varieties, and those grapes cannot contribute more than 10 percent of volume to the final blend. The trial period lasts 10 years. And the grape varieties will not appear on labels, so consumers won't know if they're drinking a blend that includes the new varieties. This phase allows winegrowers to test the grapes in their fields and cellars.

"I have had the opportunity of tasting these varieties," said Sichel. "I found some to be more convincing than others, but it is still very early days. It is going to be a long road of experimenting, testing and learning, adapting vineyard management and cellar work as we go along and according to observed results."

Plot 52 was planted in 2009 and the vineyard is managed by Bordeaux's multi-disciplinary Science Institute of Vine and Wine (ISVV). Lead engineer Agnès Destrac-Irvine and her team collected data and measurements from what were mainly late-ripening grapes from the Mediterranean and planted promising candidates. In 2015, they vinified their first micro-cuvées for each variety in 5-liter batches.

After several years, a selection was then presented to the winegrowers, who made their choices, submitting the decision to the INAO for approval.

Castets is a nearly forgotten grape from the southwest of France that naturally resists vine disease and produces colorful wines suited for aging. Touriga Nacional is the complex, full-bodied and aromatic flagship variety from Portugal. Arinarnoa and Marselan were both created decades ago by crossing existing varieties—Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for the former and Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon for the latter. Both Alvarinho and Liliorila are aromatic white varieties.

The recently approved grapes aren't the definitive choices for all of Bordeaux's appellations. Some will likely be dropped and more will be considered.

Destrac-Irvine told Wine Spectator that new experiments were already under way at Plot 52. "We have already initiated replacements last year by grafting three varieties with grape varieties from Cyprus which are very resistant to drought."

Late-ripening varieties like Cabernet and Petit Verdot—the latter notoriously difficult to ripen—will remain within their ideal window much longer. Petit Verdot acreage has increased 191 percent since 2000. "Cabernet Sauvignon is fine until 2050," said van Leeuwen. "A lot of this research is to prepare for 2050."

Alvarinho vines
A row of Alvarinho vines in the experimental Vineyard 52. (Courtesy INAO)

A shift decades in the making

The wake-up call for Bordeaux came in 2000, with the publication of a scientific paper by leading German researcher and viticulturist Hans Schultz from Geisenheim University. Professor Schultz explained to Wine Spectator that the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio made him consider how climate change could impact vines. That led him to present a scientific paper at an international conference in Budapest in 1996 called "Climate Change and Its Possible Effects on Viticulture." It didn't go over well.

"It turned out to be extremely controversial," recounted Schultz. "One person in the audience threw a glass of water at my face. No joke!"

Undaunted, Schultz continued his work. "I started to look intensively on all kinds of aspects—for instance, UV radiation," which led to an invitation to publish a paper in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research in 2000. The paper gave an in-depth, European perspective on climatology and viticulture. In the summary, he noted that our knowledge then was still very limited and the "great challenge in the future will be to predict the responses of grapevines to simultaneously changing climatic components and to develop adequate strategies to overcome potential problems."

Since 2000, attitudes have changed. Winegrowers throughout Europe have sensed the increase in temperatures even if they don't have access to long-term data. "There are lots of changes in wine composition as a result, specifically sugar content and a decline in acidity," said Schultz.

What next?

OK. But will Bordeaux still taste like Bordeaux?

It's important to remember that the region has changed grapes before. Merlot only became popular in recent decades. And two centuries ago, there were dozens of grape varieties planted across the region. After phylloxera devastated the region, wineries chose to replant with a select few.

"I think the new varieties make less change, if they are well-chosen," said van Leeuwen. "They will make less of a change to the typicity of Bordeaux wines than if we don't change the varieties." Without action, climate change will alter the typicity of Bordeaux wine, he says. "Wine made from Merlot in Bordeaux in 2050 will have a very different taste, because it will ripen in August, it will have 16 percent alcohol and pH of 4.1."

Although consumers won't know from the label if they're participating in this experiment—at least until after the trial period—négociants are confident that Bordeaux lovers will embrace the future blends for their quality and identity. "The objective being to preserve the characteristics of Bordeaux wines, there should be no issue in selling these wines as a Bordeaux blend," said Sichel.

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