The Struggle to Fight Climate Change in Bordeaux

Sheep grazing in the vineyards at Château Cheval Blanc
Sheep grazing in the vineyards at Château Cheval Blanc / Photo by Gérard Uféras

Bordeaux is in crisis. It’s a slow, simmering crisis, but a crisis nevertheless. Climate change is altering the region and can’t be ignored.

Its ocean climate mitigated the warming and kept things stable for a while. But since 2010, the pace has quickened, and now Bordeaux must adapt.

At first, the effects seemed positive. Vintages became more regular, with fewer disasters (the last was 2013). A golden age, perhaps? But change has also manifested itself in less beneficial ways. At the same time, violent weather events—frost, hail, storms, rain at harvest, dry summers—have become more frequent.

“These events cause enormous pressure on the vines with mildew and stress, while growers struggle to keep pace,” says Stéphane Derenoncourt, a consultant who works with chateaus across Bordeaux.

Feeling the Impact

An insect hotel at Château Montrose
An insect hotel at Château Montrose / Photo courtesy of Château Montrose

Perhaps the most obvious effect on the red wine from recent vintages has been on the alcohol level, particularly since 2016. It’s shot up from the traditional 13% or 13.5% alcohol by volume (abv) to 14% and even 15%. That is particularly true where Merlot, still the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, is concerned. Clones have not helped.

“Most Merlot clones are wrong, developed for fruit and sugar,” says Claire Villars-Lurton, owner of chateaus in Pauillac and Margaux. Merlot is also most prone to spring frosts (as in 2021 and 2017) and mildew.

“It’s complicated for growers to change their ways, hard to change institutions that move as fast as their slowest members.” —Claire Villars-Lurton, owner of chateaus in Pauillac and Margaux

The monoculture of Bordeaux’s vast 270,000 acres of vines (Napa by comparison has 45,000 acres) has not helped either. Vineyard after vineyard with no breaks for trees or grasslands spread diseases quickly.

“The combination of climate change, an ocean climate and monoculture has been a real headache,” says Derenoncourt.

Changes in the Vineyard

A chicken at Château Brown
A chicken at Château Brown / Photo by Luke Carver

If Bordeaux was late in waking up to climate change, it is moving now. Perhaps the most headline-grabbing event was in January 2021, when the authorities gave permission for four new red varieties—Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional—and two whites —Alvarinho and Lilorila—to be planted in Bordeaux. Winemakers can use up to 10% of these varieties in a blend.

The varieties were chosen because they ripen late, therefore escaping spring frosts, and can deal with hydric stress. Bordeaux wine is made from any blend of Merlot (66% of planted vineyards), Cabernet Sauvignon (22.5%), Cabernet Franc (9.5%) and lesser varieties (2%) of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère.

Headlines aside, Bordeaux is adapting in quieter ways. The landscape is being changed. A panoply of solutions is being deployed.

“We wanted to bring the soil back to life, and we also wanted to create cool areas in the vineyard to reduce summer temperatures.”—Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director of Château Cheval Blanc

More woods, forests and hedges are being introduced to break up the monotony of vineyards. The soil, once sterile from too many chemicals, is being brought back to life. Space is being given to animals and insects. Call it biodiversity, and you would be right.

Jean-Christophe Mau, owner of Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan, is one of the producers who is promoting these developments. The estate, an oasis in suburban Bordeaux, is 148 acres, of which 76 are vines. The rest is parkland, trees and forest. Mau is leaving these and planting more trees and flowers. Beehives have been established to help propagation. The estate is being managed to allow as many species as possible to thrive.

Bordeaux Aims to Protect its Future with New Grape Varieties

One of the most obvious examples of increased plant life has been between the rows of vines. Where once, the land was empty, rigorously plowed, now ground cover is standard and grows in 85% of the Bordeaux vineyard. In the Médoc, Villars-Lurton, owner of Château Haut-Bages Libéral in Pauillac, and Ferrière and La Gurgue in Margaux, is emphatic about the importance of ground cover.

“People never spoke about the soil, just the vines,” she says. “That way, the land died. So, we started working on the soil 15 years ago. We introduced cereals, legumes, clover and other crops. We are certified biodynamic. Now we have living soil that doesn’t suffer from dryness in the summer.”

She, too, is introducing new trees and hedges among the vines as well as around the vineyard.

The forest at the edge of Château Brown
The forest at the edge of Château Brown / Photo by Luke Carver

At Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion, it is the same story. Hedges now surround the 100-acre property. Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director, started hedge planting in 2008 and has added trees and woods as well as flowers in a project that started in 2019.

“We wanted to bring the soil back to life and we also wanted to create cool areas in the vineyard to reduce summer temperatures,” he says.

Apart from individual initiatives, there are more large-scale projects underway. In the Margaux appellation, a project funded by the local syndicat is underway to plant corridors with grasses suitable for pollinators. Another project in Saint-Émilion is planting 300,000 trees and hedges; new rules will make environmental certification compulsory from 2023.

What does all of this have to do with climate change?

“It allows us to mitigate some of the effects of climate change by creating carbon sinks and by encouraging increased animal activity,” says Mau.

Château Cheval
Château Cheval / Photo by Cecile Burban

Apart from bringing life back to the vineyards, these trees, hedges and ground cover capture carbon, creating a way for vineyards to balance the output created by human activity and work in the cellars. Fermentation produces carbon dioxide, and capturing it is a major way of reducing carbon footprint.

At Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan, Château Guiraud in Sauternes and Château Montrose in Saint Estèphe, techniques have been developed to capture the carbon dioxide and use it. According to Vincent Decup, Montrose’s technical director, “there may have been a high initial cost [$70,000] in installing the equipment, which was developed by waste and environment management company Veolia, but we are already getting our money back by selling the potassium bicarbonate that is the byproduct of the CO2.”

The Merlot Conundrum

A look at the cover crop at Château Brown
A look at the cover crop at Château Brown / Photo by Luke Carver

And then there is Merlot. Across Bordeaux, producers are working out how to cope with over-alcoholic Merlot. New clones may be an answer, vineyard selection from old vines (as at Haut-Bages Libéral and Montrose) is another. Young Merlot vines were badly planted, according to Villars-Lurton, with roots that are too shallow and therefore suffer from stress in the summer.

Growers who want to replace their Merlot are being offered subsidies. Cabernet Franc in Saint-Émilion and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc and the Graves are less affected so far by climate change. Both can replace Merlot. As can Malbec, which has made a comeback in the Bordeaux pantheon of grapes and ripens reliably and late.

Grape varieties are adaptable. But there will come a tipping point. It may be close for Merlot, less so for the two Cabernets. It will partly depend on the speed of change, both for the grower and the vines. It will depend on the innovative abilities of growers, both the majors and the minors, to be willing to change and to have the means to do so.

Distinctly Bordeaux

Cabernet Sauvignon clones at Château Montrose
Cabernet Sauvignon clones at Château Montrose / Photo courtesy of Château Montrose

While none of this is new in the wine world, there are differences in Bordeaux. For a start, this is Bordeaux, where nothing appeared to change for decades. Yet it is changing. Not in a way that affects wine enthusiasts and drinkers, but in ways that help in the good fight against global warming. Unlike in, say, Burgundy, estates in Bordeaux are large, so owners have space to experiment, to try things at scale.

In the last five years, I have found in Bordeaux a willingness to talk about climate change and to act on it.

“It’s complicated for growers to change their ways, hard to change institutions that move as fast as their slowest members,” says Villars-Lurton.

A deer in the vineyards at Château Brown
A deer in the vineyards at Château Brown / Photo by Luke Carver

Figures show the changes: in 2020, organic farming increased by 43% to 49,000 acres (including vineyards in conversion). In 2019, 55% of products used on the vineyard are suitable for organic viticulture, compared to 30% in 2009.

Its ocean climate could well keep Bordeaux cooler than was predicted back in 2013 by researchers in Australia, who suggested that Bordeaux could reach temperatures found in the hot Riverland region of South Australia. As of today, and from a standing start, expect Bordeaux, like a great ocean liner, to slowly turn to embrace innovation and adapt to climate change.

But the process is only just beginning, and the vast majority of Bordeaux’s 5,500 growers are not as advanced or as wealthy as the privileged few at the top. The region needs to move faster to preserve as much of what makes Bordeaux for as long as possible.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on March 11, 2022
Topics: Climate Change