Adapting to a new climate reality in the Côtes de Bordeaux

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…

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