Adapting to a new climate reality in the Côtes de Bordeaux

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-07-2019

I was gearing up for a day of touring vineyards and tasting dry red wines in Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, yet I felt anxious. The temperature reached 104 Farenheit the day I arrived, and I had been reading about the record-breaking high temperatures across Western and Northern Europe. Prone to heat exhaustion and missing my air conditioner at home, I hydrated feverishly, soaked my cooling towel and hung it around my neck, as I headed out for the day. It reached 108 degrees that July afternoon.

The intense heat wave passed halfway through the trip, as rain fell on these vineyards for the first time in more than a month. And while this was one for the books, bouts of extreme heat are becoming more commonplace.

Merlot vines at Chateau La Peyruche.

Merlot vines at Chateau La Peyruche.

Known for its iconic sense of history and tradition, Bordeaux winegrowers and vintners are reassessing how they operate in light of climate change. From picking grapes earlier, to altering their blends, to considering new grape varieties altogether, winemakers are utilizing different tools to brace for the impact of a much warmer climate.

To be clear, I felt no sense of panic from anyone I spoke with about this topic. Winemakers all over the world are struggling with how to adapt to climate change (some more than others), and when it comes to farming, change is constant.

But as I talked to people in the wine industry during a week-long trip, I found a stoic acceptance that climate change will drastically alter the landscape of Bordeaux wine. Adaptations are necessary, and well underway.

Earlier this summer, the Bordeaux winemaker’s syndicate voted unanimously to amend rules for the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations, allowing for seven new grape varieties to be included for wines bottled under these appellations.

France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research has been testing dozens of grape varieties for years, to determine which might fare better in the hotter, drier climate to come. Among the new grape varieties are: Touriga Nacional (renowned grape of Portugal’s Douro Valley); Arinarnoa (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat); and Marselan (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache crossing). White grapes like Petit Manseng and Albariño will also be permitted for white blends. These grapes may soon be included in these Bordeaux wines up to a combined 10% of the blend.

The move would only affect two appellations, but Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur make up about half of the wine produced in the entire region. The change still needs approval from the French government, so the process will take time. But this would be the first amendment to these appellation rules since the 1930s, and it demonstrates that Bordeaux winemakers are doing what they can to hedge their bets.

During my visit to the Côtes de Bordeaux (a group of appellations spread among the Entre-Deux-Mers and Right Banks) the shifting climate was a hot topic of discussion. All the winemakers I spoke with seemed to have a wait-and-see approach to planting these new grape varieties. While no one I spoke with voiced any objection to this move, neither was anyone chomping at the bit to plant Marselan — although one winemaker told me he had planted Albariño years earlier.

It’s too early to tell how vintners will weave these varieties into the larger quilt of Bordeaux wines. As I toured a new Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard on a scorching, sunny day, Bertrand Weisgerber (owner of Chateau La Peyruche in Cadillac) said he sees opportunity in having different options when planting or re-planting a vineyard. “It makes sense,” he said. “I think it’s a good time to try new things.”

Wine producers here have been adapting to climate change in their own ways for years and years, because they’ve been seeing the change in their vineyards first-hand. “The wine industry has been [one of the] first to face this challenge,” said Stéphane Apelbaum of Optimum Vineyard Management & Consulting. “It seems like we’re having two seasons instead of four.”


Stéphane Apelbaum at Chateau Les Conseillans.

At Chateau Les Conseillans, in Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux, I tasted some beautiful Merlot-based wines and talked about the future of the grape. Here on the Right Bank of the Garonne, the early-ripening Merlot grape has long dominated, backed up by the other major Bordeaux grapes. But Apelbaum says, as the climate changes, he sees Merlot’s dominance fading.

Thirty-five years ago, he said, Merlot was often harvested fully ripe at levels that led to an alcohol content of about 12.5%. In current vintages, he said, Merlot grapes are being harvested with potential alcohol around 15% or higher. Merlot grapes can be picked even earlier (which many winemakers are already doing), but not too early, or you end up with bitter and unbalanced wines.

This Merlot dynamic is leading some winemakers in these Right Bank regions to focus more on grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, which can ripen more evenly in warmer temperatures. And other, non-traditional grapes may feature more in future red Bordeaux blends. Apelbaum mentioned interest in Tempranillo as an option, given that long-term projections of Bordeaux’s climate start to resemble those of some warmer regions in southern Spain. Other winemakers I spoke with showed interest in Portuguese reds as well.

The changing climate can pose difficulties for winemakers trying to create balanced wines, said Patrick Honnef of Côtes de Castillon’s Chateau Page. But his Merlot-based reds (especially the 2016), showed that fresh, vibrant Merlots are still alive and well. “I would not say there is panic, but a lot of work to do,” Honnef said, adding that he would soon be visiting southern Spain to meet with winemakers and discuss how they’re adapting to climate change.

Even a region with such storied history and winemaking tradition, growers and winemakers will have to evolve and adapt with this new climate reality. At the same time, I found passionate winemakers who want to continue making wines that represent their house’s history, style, and terroir.

“We still have to respect the Bordeaux style,” Apelbaum said. “But we must prepare. We must face this.”

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