The world famous French wine region of Bordeaux has been facing the need to adapt to climate change the last few decades. Warmer temperatures and changes in weather patterns means the region needs to adapt to different growing season timing and the evolving impact of diseases that impact the vines.
Bordeaux is firm on wanting to protect its reputation and standing as a leading wine region where 6 red grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere, Petit Verdot) and 8 whites (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc, and Mauzac) have allowed the region to provide pleasure to wine drinkers across the world for the last several hundreds of years.
After extensive study and research over the last decade 6 grapes have been approved by France’s Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualite (INAO) to be grown and bottled in the region to help Bordeaux flourish in the changing conditions caused by global warming. This is a big break with tradition but the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) categorizes it as “the culmination of over a decade of research by wine scientists and growers of Bordeaux to address the impact of climate change through highly innovative, eco-friendly measures.”
The newly approved varieties are four reds—Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, and Touriga Nacional—and two whites—Alvarinho and Liliorila—all of which are described as “well-adapted to alleviate hydric stress associated with temperature increases and shorter growing cycles” according to the Bordeaux Wine Council.
Arinarnoa is cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon created in France in 1956. Castets is a native French variety described as a “long-forgotten Bordeaux grape.” Marselan is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache developed in France in 1961. Touriga Nacional is a late-ripening grape of Portuguese origin traditionally used in making port wine. The white grape Alvarinho is the Portuguese name for Albarino, potentially making this new white the best-known variety of the bunch. The last white, Liliorila, is a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay, reportedly created in France also in 1956.
One further grape – Petit Manseng – was considered but not approved. It was just one of over 52 varieties considered over the past decade not to make it. Respecting the other wine regions main grapes have also been evaluated. For instance Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – the two main grapes from Burgundy – have not been allowed to assure these grapes have only one primary growing region.
The new vines can be planted from the coming growing season and can only account for up to 5 percent of the planted vineyard area and cannot account for more than 10 percent of a wine blend. This latter rule means that, due to France’s existing labeling regulations, these new varieties will not appear on Bordeaux labels and single varietal wines from these grapes will also not be produced.
It is interesting that this is innovation in regard to where these grapes are grown and in what mix, that the grape varietals are not new as such and some have a strong familiarity with existing grapes. A common trait proven by the Bordeaux growers’ research is that they are more resistant to mildew and grey rot than the classic grapes and some are well suited for the change in growing season with later ripening. The main value they are expected to bring is the ability to grow well in the regions expected future climate and complement the existing primary ones as the blending is performed.
New grapes are just one of many ways the Bordeaux region is shifting to adapt to modern weather patterns. Climate change has already caused a shift in which grapes vineyards are favoring, For example the late-ripening Petit Verdot has seen its plantings jump 191 percent as of 2018. Other enological and agricultural changes include adapting best practices to the needs of each vintage, such as delayed pruning, increasing vine trunk height to reduce leaf area, limiting leaf-thinning to protect grapes from sun, adapting plot sites to minimize hydric stress, night harvesting, and reducing plant density.
For the wine drinkers the first impact will likely be in a few years as we see these grapes blended into existing wines. Our challenge will be to identify the difference to the wines with the classic grapes only. Our benefit is projected to be the continuation of high quality and great tasting wines from the region for decades to come.