Could great Bordeaux mean Touriga Nacional rather than Cabernet Sauvignon within a few decades?
During this fall’s harvest, Bordeaux researchers will be fermenting tiny batches of wines from an experimental vineyard growing 52 grape varieties largely unknown to the region. Their goal is to find grapes that can produce Bordeaux-style wines when, or if, climate change alters Bordeaux’s growing season significantly enough to knock the region’s traditional grapes out of the game.
Run by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and supported by the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB), the experiment is both daring and pragmatic. “They are facing the future. They don’t have their heads stuck in the sand,” said Prof. Kees Van Leeuwen, the scientist managing the project, of his backers. “If in 20 years, Bordeaux needs to introduce other grape varieties, they’ll be ready.”
The need to be ready hit home in August 2003 when a prolonged heat wave scorched France. Some Bordeaux grapes seemed to cook on the vine, marking many wines of the vintage with aromas of overripe fruit, low acidity and a short lifespan. If Bordeaux’s climate continues in the direction that data shows it’s currently headed, vintners can expect increasingly wet, stormy winters and hot, dry summers, as well as harvests that arrive before the ideal window that delivers ripe fruit, fresh acidity and mature tannins.
“We know that we make the best wine when the grapes are ripe between Sept. 10 and Oct. 10,” said Van Leeuwen. Early-ripening varieties like Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are particularly vulnerable, but all of the grapes currently used for official appellation wines could find themselves replaced in a hotter, dryer Bordeaux.
Researchers scoured warmer wine regions like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, selecting 52 candidates and planting them in 2009 in an experimental vineyard in the Pessac-Lèognan appellation. Many of the foreign grapes will sound familiar—Sangiovese, Touriga Nacional, Xinomavro and Assyrtiko, to name a few—stars in their home terroir, but strangers to Bordeaux’s.
One part of the challenge will be to learn how to coax the best out of these grapes in a new climate. “We’ve never made wines from these varieties in Bordeaux,” said Agnès Destrac-Irvine, the research engineer on the project.
Since 2012, Destrac-Irvine and the other researchers have gathered data on phenols in the grapes and the ripening phase for each variety. Roughly 20 have been selected for micro-fermentation this year in single-variety batches of 30 kilograms of grapes. The team will analyze the finished wines.
Next, the grower syndicates for Bordeaux’s many appellations will look at the data and choose a handful of grape varieties they believe might produce a wine with characteristics typical of their appellation. “We’re not imposing anything on them. It’s for them to choose,” said Destrac-Irvine. The appellations will then ask for volunteers to grow these experimental grape varieties, knowing that the fruit cannot be used for AOC wine. It can be sold as Vin de France.
Fundamental to the project is the objective of maintaining, rather than changing, the typical profile of Bordeaux wines. The Bordelais judge a wine by its ability to age gracefully. Whether or not consumers keep the wines for decades is beside the point. It is a mark of quality ingrained in the Bordelais psyche.
Then there is the French appellation system, regulated by the Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité (INAO). Appellation status is granted when a wine can prove it has a unique quality tied to a specific place. While INAO spokesperson Nadia Michaud acknowledged that climate change was leading the French wine trade to look for more suitable grapes, “of course that raises the question of maintaining the typicity of the wines, which is inescapable when you are an AOC producer.”
The timeline for introducing a new grape into appellation rules is long. “They have to analyze the results, proceed with commercial tests, and through an organization that does the taste test, justify that they have maintained the typicity of their wines,” said Michaud. “And finally, they must engage the regulatory process."
Despite the challenges, the research continues because it could potentially save both a wine region and an industry that produces between 600 to 800 million bottles of wine a year, shipped to over a hundred different countries.