New varieties in Bordeaux? Surely not!
When I received a communication from France last summer announcing that seven grape varieties had just been added to the likes of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, semillon and sauvignon blanc, it had me reaching for my calendar – poisson d'avril (April Fools) maybe? Surely a deeply conservative wine region like Bordeaux would never countenance the introduction of new, 'foreign' varieties? But it was serious.
And the rationale for the introduction of the seven varieties was equally serious – to help mitigate the effects of climate change and vine disease on Bordeaux wines. If Messrs, Trump and Bolsonaro were Bordeaux drinkers they would have noticed a gradual shift in the style of the region's wines in recent years, and in particular a marked ratcheting up of alcohol levels.
Bordeaux has experienced some of its highest average annual temperatures since records began over the past 10 years, and the result has been riper grapes with higher natural sugar levels, leading to richer, fuller wines with higher levels of alcohol and lower acidity. This increased ripeness hasn't, of course, been a bad thing for producers with vineyards that in the past struggled to ripen their grapes fully.
The practice of chaptalisation, which permits winemakers to increase the alcohol level by adding sugar to the grape must before fermentation, has all but died out in Bordeaux largely as a result of global warming. This is good news for the consumer, if not for the sugar merchants.
The quest for balance
But for other producers the rise in temperatures has made it increasingly tricky to make wines with good balance. The merlot grape, the most widely planted red variety in Bordeaux, ripens early and if not harvested early enough potential alcohol levels can spiral out of control.
Merlot is vitally important on Bordeaux's so-called right bank, not only in appellations like Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, but also in the Entre-Deux-Mers region which is the dynamo for good value sub-£10 claret. It is also an area well known for its dry white wines, traditionally made from sauvignon blanc and semillon.
Left too long on the vine in hot weather conditions these traditional Bordeaux varieties have a tendency to become blowsy, over-blown and alcoholic. It is for these wines, red and white, that the new grape varieties are a potential lifeline in the battle to counter the effects of climate change.
In June 2019, in a historic (and unanimous) vote by the union of Bordeaux appellation and Bordeaux Supérieur producers, seven additional varieties were confirmed, each one with characteristics that lend themselves to the challenges of climate change and vine-related disease, purportedly without diluting the unique character of Bordeaux wines. Here is a list of the varieties and their particular characteristics:
Fans of Port and the red table wines of the Douro Valley in Portugal will be familiar with this grape variety. It is a high-quality grape that produces intense, tannic reds with dark fruit character and the capacity to age. It is also resistant to excessive heat and fungal disease, maintaining good levels of acidity and freshness.
This is a variety that was born in the early1960s and is a cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache. It tends to be harvested relatively late, around the same time as cabernet sauvignon, and is particularly successful at resisting rot, mildew and coulure (poor bunch development after flowering). Grown mainly in the Languedoc and southern Rhône in France, and also in Uruguay, it is used to hot conditions and produces darkly coloured, aromatic wines with supple tannins, and it is a grape variety that demonstrates good age-worthiness.
A cross between cabernet sauvignon and tannat, the traditional grape of Madiran in southwest France (and now planted widely in Uruguay), arinarnoa buds relatively late, protecting it from the spring frosts that seem to be increasingly prevalent in Bordeaux, and it ripens late. It also resists rot, producing deeply coloured, structured wines with firm tannins and good acidity. Some compare its herbaceous character with that of cabernet franc, one of Bordeaux's most notable red varieties.
A virtually unknown grape with its origins in either the Gironde or the Pyrenees. Its earliest reference was in 1874, the year that The Wine Society was established. Castets apparently produces deeply coloured wines that age well. Whilst it resists downy mildew it is susceptible to powdery mildew, a fungal infection that affects many of France's vineyards, including those of Bordeaux. So it's hard to see quite why this grape is included in the line-up of newly permitted grapes…
Another variety with its roots quite literally in the southwest of France, this time in Jurançon close to the Pyrenees. It has an impressive ability to concentrate the natural sugars that it produces in the berries whilst at the same time maintaining excellent acidity levels – an unusual combination. This makes it perfect for hot conditions when acidity levels drop rapidly as the grapes over-ripen. Petit manseng can make great dessert wines, so is a variety that might one day be included in Bordeaux's sweet wines.
Alvarinho / Albariño
Well known to lovers of the northwest Iberian wines of Vinho Verde (Portugal) and the Rías Baixas appellation of Galicia in Spain, this is a refreshing, aromatic variety that is enjoying a renaissance in popularity. Fruity and floral, it produces precise, bone-dry wines with good acidity. Perfect for pepping up, and propping up, the traditional wines made from semillon and sauvignon blanc.
A cross between chardonnay and less well-known baroque, liliorila was developed in Bordeaux in the 1950s – its name deriving from the Basque for 'yellow flower'. The grape produces intense, aromatic wines which can help resist the effects of very hot weather.
New varieties permitted for Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur only
There are, unsurprisingly, a number of restrictions on the scale and use of the potential new plantings. For now, the additional varieties are permitted exclusively for the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations – which make up over half of Bordeaux's total production. They can constitute up to 10% of the blend in the finished wine, with the traditional Bordeaux varieties making up the rest, and no producer is allowed to have more than 5% of their total plantings from these new grape varieties. Additionally, the names of the varieties cannot appear on the label.
Some Bordeaux winemakers have been unofficially growing non-permitted grape varieties in their vineyards for a number of years as a hedge against the effects of climate change, but this is the first time in France that such a move has officially been sanctioned. It will be fascinating to see how quickly the additional varieties gain traction and whether the more 'premium' regions of Bordeaux take note and lobby for similar changes.