For many wine lovers, Bordeaux is as good as French wine gets.  While Burgundy has its superstar domaines, Champagne its peerless Houses and the Rhône boasts some of the finest winemaking talent you will find, Bordeaux wears the crown.  It's combination of a marginal climate and complex mix of terroirs have provided the perfect home for classic blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot for centuries.  It has produced a cepage – Bordeaux Blend – that is used the world over and gifted us wines as sublime as Petrus, Lafite, Latour, Ausone and d’Yquem that have been sought after for centuries.

Increasingly, however, there is talk of change in the region and significant change at that.  Climate change is changing the way things are done in Bordeaux and the latest recognition of this is the formal authorisation of six new grape varieties for the region. 

INAO approval of six new grape varieties

In a direct response to the changing growing conditions in the region, in 2019 seven new varieties were submitted for approval to the Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualite (INAO).   These varieties were chosen specifically for their suitability for the changing climate and the need to have grapes that could handle heat, drought, and shorter growing cycles.

Last week, six of these (see below) were approved – a move that raises the total from 14 to 20.  While these new varieties can only be used in small quantities for now (up to 10%) and can’t be listed on the label, the fact that they have been deemed necessary speaks volumes for the impact of climate change in Bordeaux.

The new grapes are:

  • Arinarnoa - a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Castets – used to be used in Bordeaux and gives dark, concentrated grapes that are high in tannin and alcohol, so not a million miles from Tannat
  • Marselan – a crossing of Grenache and Cabernet which is proving popular across the globe and gives good extract, fine cherry/currant juice and excellent colour
  • Touriga Nacional – a Port variety famed for its heat resistance and the exceptional quality of its concentrated, complex, blackcurrant and cherry tinted juice

Plus, two new whites: 

  • Alvarinho – popular on the Iberian peninsula and gives fresh, lively wines
  • Liliorila - a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay

While it’s unlikely that any of the grapes will find their way into all of Bordeaux’s vineyards (although there used to be Riesling at Yquem, so who knows?!), their impact on the regions wine could still be significant.

For now, it they will be slipped in to offset either a lack of freshness or to balance the excesses of their more noble counterparts as warmer weather and shorter hang time takes its toll.  Over time, however, and if things continue to change then the INAO may be asked to look again.  

Continuing climate changes - a good thing gone too far?

Australia’s McLaren vale has seen the vintage come forward by a month since 2000 and in California they’ve had to look for more less-thirsty grapes as the punishing drought continues.   While the maritime climate of Bordeaux may escape such dramatic changes, vines that have been staples may become less sustainable and less impressive in future.

Recently as we have noted before, climate change has been kind to Bordeaux. Since the turn of the millennium, good and great years have become far more regular than we are used to.  In the short-term this is great news, but if the trend to heat and drought continues then it will be a good thing gone too far:

2000 – Outstanding
2001 - Good, if overshadowed by 2000
2002 – Moderate
2003 - Very good to outstanding (if controversial)
2004 – Good
2005 – Outstanding
2006 – Good, if overshadowed by 2005
2007 – Good
2008 – Very good
2009 – Outstanding
2010 – Outstanding
2011 – Moderate
2012 – Moderate
2013 – Moderate
2014 – Good
2015 – Very good to outstanding
2016 - Very good to outstanding
2017 – Good
2018 - Very good to outstanding
2019 – Very good to outstanding
2020 - Very good to outstanding

What Does The Future Look Like In Bordeaux?

The fact that this notoriously conservative region has countenanced the idea of accepting new varieties tells you how seriously they are taking the challenge.  And with good reason.  Anyone who has regularly tasted the leading growths over the past decade or so has seen a shift in style that cannot be dismissed as mere vintage variation.   The wines are getting fuller, riper and heavier.  Over the short-term this is delivering wonderful wines with glorious concentration, power and complexity, but where does it end?  

When the 1982s hit the market, they were marvelled over as being once in a lifetime wines.  The ferocious heat (since bested by years such as 2003) was thought freakish and they massive, dense, breathtakingly complex wines it produced were coveted for their rarity as much as their deliciousness.  Such growing conditions are becoming common, and whilst they are not yet the norm if something isn’t done will Mouton become Opus One and Petrus, Dominus?  It’s not an idea that most would advocate.

Whether you believe in climate change or not, the evidence from Bordeaux is there for all to see: the wines are getting better but the style is changing.  These new varieties are doubtless aimed at ameliorating the changes afoot for the staple AC Bordeaux which make up the vast majority of the region’s output.  The addition of 10% Alvarinho to some AC Bordeaux Blanc or Entre Deux Mers will keep things tangy as a sprinkling of Castets will keep a Merlot-dominated basic red in balance. 

At the upper end, however, such tricks will be shunned in the name of purity.  This means they will need to find other ways to deal with shortening seasons, heat stress and drought.  Given the money these wines fetch they will probably find ways to lessen the impact, but an impact there will be and the wines we see today are likely to be gone, if not tomorrow, then maybe sometime soon.  

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