New grapes in Bordeaux to fight climate change

Foresight, or an easy way out?

by Panos Kakaviatos for

6 February 2021

Late last month it became official: France’s wine appellation authority (INAO) authorized six new grapes for Bordeaux to better adapt to climate change. Two are very well known: Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho.

As most readers know, the late ripening Touriga Nacional, famous in Portugal, yields rich black fruit, high tannin and has good resistance to diseases in the vineyard. Alvarinho also is used for Portugal’s Vinho Verde whites and is the same grape as Albariño in Spain. As most readers know, it yields dry whites with rather high acidity and resists grey rot.

You can read more about all six new grapes from Chris Mercer’s reporting in Decanter.

The INAO chose these grapes for naturally high acidity and resistance against specific vine diseases, according to Mercer. Also important to note is that these new authorized varieties in Bordeaux could only make up 5% of a producer’s vineyard area and 10% of a final wine blend, according to the Bordeaux Wine Council or CIVB. Ten percent may not sound like much to some people, but it can alter the identity of a wine indeed.

Many are upset by the news.

Why not use other methods to fight climate change, such as canopy management or existing grape clones more resistant to heat and dry weather? What about less leaf stripping, planting vines in cooler vineyards with northern exposures, for example, or work soils to reduce pH? That makes sense. For his part, Bordeaux based wine writer Yohan Castaing says that the logic is not so easy to follow, in this report. “While evolution in viticulture seems to be the basis, the CIVB has chosen to plant grape varieties that are very far removed from Merlot, the two Cabernets or Sauvignon Blanc” and this is true, too.

On the other hand, I get a vague feeling that some react as if Lynch Bages or another famous Bordeaux will soon be made with Touriga Nacional. It seems that the new grapes are authorized only for the appellations of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur (not to diminish their status as Bordeaux wines).

On a Facebook posting, several industry sources expressed concerns.

“I am curious to see what will be noted in the typicity of Bordeaux wines,” wine consultant Thomas Duclos asked rhetorically. He derided the INAO decision as a result of 50 years of “n’importe quoi”, which can translate into “whatever” or “talking rubbish”. Duclos said that the decision “continues to kill plant diversity” in Bordeaux and that more should be done to cultivate “diversity in individuals that constitutes our identity”.

As a wine consumer, I also wonder about loss of identity and would find it strange to see Alvarinho for example in a bottle of Bordeaux Blanc. Or any of the other varieties in any Bordeaux wine. But the fact that the use is quite restricted can mitigate such concern. After all, this seems less a revolution and more evolution. Back in the 19th century, many a “great Bordeaux” included Syrah in difficult vintages. Further back, Bordeaux typicality was not restricted to just the grapes we know today.

It was not until the early 20th century that French wine authorities began codifying what should or should not be in wine, in large part to counter fraud. But should these grapes be forever and always the only grapes authorized? Who wants to see the Right Bank abandon Merlot? But if temperatures and climates change to such a degree that the typicality of 1955 (or 2015) can no longer exist in 2055, shouldn’t Bordeaux be as flexible as possible? Is that too alarmist?

Another Facebook poster, Jim Dom of Château Marjosse, says that the INAO decision is more facile than it is flexible. Bordeaux, “as ever”, he wrote, is “taking the easy way out by dropping overly ‘complicated’ home grown grape varieties such as Malbec and Muscadelle.”

In the end, I believe that the decision can work for sales, at least. Some producers in difficult areas who plant the new varieties can market them as such, while (most?) others would proclaim “We are authentic”.

I wonder what this discussion will look like in 2055.


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2 Comments on “New grapes in Bordeaux to fight climate change

  1. I have a very different view depending on who is using these new grapes. I would not really want to see classified growths using these new grapes and altering the makeup of top Bordeaux. But, Bordeaux is a very large region and a lot of small growers in lesser areas are hurting. They are not competing well on the international market, and if this helps them I would say go for it and even are larger percentages of the final blend.

  2. Indeed, the changes only apply to Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines, so I’ll change my illustration as possibly misleading. And, yes, you make sense here.

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