Bordeaux Aims to Protect its Future with New Grape Varieties

Bordeaux grape varieties
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Climate change and rising temperature degrees are of intense interest to wine producers. With each degree that temperatures increase, higher alcohol-by-volume (abv) measures soon follow. Red wines that were 12% abv 30 years ago have crept up to 13.5%, 14.5% and even 15% in the 2018 Bordeaux vintage.

Producers in Bordeaux are worried. Concern is so prevalent that there have been moves toward changing wine regulations and plantings within the iconic region for more than a decade.

On June 28, 2019, the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB, or Bordeaux Wine Council) called upon two years of research to recommend the addition of six heat-resistant varieties not previously planted in the region to be officially permitted for use in Bordeaux blends.

“The vignerons were worried,” says Bernard Farges, president of the Bordeaux Wine Council and a grower. While president of the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur growers’ syndicate, he worked with members to launch the project in 2017. “They felt that if nothing was done, in 40 years Bordeaux as we know it would not exist. It would be too alcoholic and not typical.”

Climate Change Is Rapidly Altering Wine As We Know It

Initially, there were 52 varieties contending for space in the new Bordeaux blend, planted in a vineyard that became known as Plot 52. The French National Research Institute of Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), via the Bordeaux VitAdapt program, oversaw the experiments. The project was designed to track Bordeaux variety behavior in a climate change context and track the quality and drought resistance of the newcomers in the Bordeaux climate and terroir.

The objective was to maintain the acidity, structure and aromatics that the world has come to associate with classic Bordeaux. Blind tests with wine drinkers were conducted before and throughout Plot 52 blending to determine the highest potential for delivering those expectations and perceptions.

As the climate gets hotter, winemakers around the world are trying to work against climate-caused changes in taste using many techniques. The report states that slowing the taste progression with drought-resistant, later ripening grapes benefits a blended wine such as Bordeaux more than a single-variety wine.

On January 26, 2021, the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), which controls such regulations, formally approved the use of four new red and two new white grape varieties in the Bordeaux region. The experimental Bordeaux grapes are Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional for reds, and Alvarinho and Liliorila for whites. They will be official in the government registry bulletin in a few weeks, and planting starts in April.

These varieties are in addition to the grapes currently approved in existing appellation specifications, including six red varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carménère and Petit Verdot—and up to eight white grapes: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc and Mauzac.

“The vignerons were worried. They felt that if nothing was done, in 40 years Bordeaux as we know it would not exist.” —Bernard Farges, Bordeaux Wine Council

Estimates are for two to eight acres of these new varieties to be planted per participating producer. Who will plant what and where is completely voluntary. There is no special funding for these plantings, making them a business expense for vineyard owners.

The new varieties are limited to 5% of a producer’s planted vineyard area and cannot account for more than 10% of a final blend. Additionally, for the moment, vines can only be planted in the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations. Normal legal regulations prohibit naming the grapes on the Bordeaux label if they comprise less than 15% of the blend.

The first harvest to be allowed into a wine blend is three years after planting. If things go well, consumers can expect to find these new varieties in the bottle, but not on the label, starting in 2024. This includes red, white, rosé and clairet, a darker colored rosé.

The new regulations do allow for some future adaptation. Essentially, if a grape does not measure up and perform to expectation, it will be dropped from official use. The regulations’ 10-year plan offers three options: continue the experiment for another 10 years to know more; abandon the varieties due to disappointing results while looking to others; or integrate these grape varieties into the new classic Bordeaux blends.

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So far, Marselan and Arinarnoa are the most popular for producers intent on planting. Farges said he is “most interested” in seeing what Touriga Nacional does in Bordeaux.

“I am confident that even if these varieties don’t work, we will continue to experiment,” said Farges. “We need to do something before it is too late.”

The classic Bordeaux vines most at risk are Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. They make up the bulk of red and white vines in the Bordeaux region. Due to a dramatic climate shift starting in late 1990s, harvest for these early ripening grapes crept into August; September 10 to October 10 is the historic norm. According to the research, these two grapes, as they exist now, could be useless by 2050.

The New Kids on the Bordeaux Block

New Red Varieties

Arinarnoa

Origin: INRA 1956

The result of a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, Arinarnoa is known for its steady production, large bunches and late bud burst. It is resistant to grey rot. It adapts well to climate changes, producing low sugar levels and good acidity. Wines are well structured, colorful and tannic, with complex, persistent aromas.

Castets

Origin: Southwestern France, possibly in Gironde

This historical and long-forgotten Bordeaux grape variety is less susceptible to grey rot, odium and especially powdery mildew, hence its indisputable environmental interest. Wines are colorful and suitable for aging.

Marselan

Origin: INRA 1961

A cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, this late-ripening variety is at lower risk of suffering from spring frost and follows a conventional pattern with respect to harvesting dates for the Bordeaux vineyards. It adapts well to climate changes and has proven to be less susceptible to grey rot, odium and mites. Wines are high quality, colorful, distinctive and suitable for ageing.

Touriga Nacional

Origin: Portugal

A very late-ripening variety born in the Dâo and important in the Douro, Touriga Nacional is less at risk of suffering from spring frost, allowing later harvesting and adapts to climate changes. It is not particularly susceptible to most fungal diseases, except for grapevine dead arm. Wines are of excellent quality, complex, aromatic, full-bodied, structured, colorful and suitable for ageing.

New White Varieties

Alvarinho

Origin: Portugal/Spain

The pronounced aromatic qualities of the Portuguese Alvarinho grape variety can be used to make up for the loss of flavor usually caused by hot weather. Its ability to adapt to climatic events makes it less susceptible to grey rot. Its average potential in sugar provides subtle, aromatic wines with good acidity.

Liliorila

Origin: INRA 1956

Like Alvarinho, the pronounced aromatic qualities of Liliorila can be used to make up for the loss of flavor usually caused by hot weather. A cross between Baroque and Chardonnay, it is less susceptible to grey rot. Wines are flowery, powerful and aromatic.

Published on February 8, 2021
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