Wine of the Day: A New Day for Bordeaux

Times, they are a-changing….

Bordeaux, France

This week the Bordeaux Wine Council (C.I.V.B.) announced that the region has been approved by the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) to begin the use of six new grape varieties in the production of Bordeaux.

An interesting twist as the region put the widely recognized international varieties, i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, on the world map, expanding their production into other countries when Bordeaux winemakers began to leave the region to find alternative (often more affordable) opportunities in either other parts of France (i.e. Languedoc,) other European countries (i.e. the Iberian Pennisula,) or with New World expansion. The French were also running from the phylloxera pandemic that wiped out thousands of acres of historic vineyards, changing the face of the industry in the country. Now it seems, the areas they expanded to, particularly Southern France and Portugal will be bringing some of their historic varieties to Bordeaux.

Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France

Unlike many New World counties, the wine laws of Europe, particularly those of France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, are incredibly strict. The ability to plant anything you want and see how it grows just isn’t legal in many parts of these Old World countries, France in particular. Up until now only six total red varieties, and eight white varieties, were allowed to be grown in Bordeaux (and this is all of Bordeaux, Right Bank, Left Bank, Cotes de Bordeaux to premium St. Emillion Grand Cru or Margaux.) So why upend hundreds of years of tradition to allow these new varieties?

Two words, climate change.

Right Bank, Bordeaux Merlot

Bordeaux has been feeling the effects of climate change for years, which has quietly been shifting the production of some of our favorite wines, sometimes without our even knowing. Classic Right Bank, Merlot dominant, Bordeaux has been introducing more and more Cabernet Sauvignon into their vineyards as the cooler-climate Merlot just can’t ripen as consistently as needed. Hearty Petit Verdot, historically used in very small proportions of the blend as experienced a 191% growth as of 2018, according to C.I.V.B.

Over the past 10+ years, a group of Bordeaux researchers, wine scientists, and growers have been working to address the impact of climate change through innovative, eco-friendly measures. Their research resulted in 52 new varieties being put forth over the past decade for consideration. In the end, only six have been approved based on their ability to “alleviate hydric stress associated with temperature increases and shorter growth cycles.”

A little about the newly approved varieties, including four reds, Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, and Touriga Nacional, and two whites, Alvarinho and Liliorila.

Most of the varieties are of French creation, including Arinarnoa, a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon created in France in 1956 that sees a late bud-break, high resistance to disease and rot, delivering a well-rounded wine with good structure, tannin, aroma, and flavor consistently.

Castets is a native French variety, originally from Acquitaine, with some sensitivity to mildew, but not affected by it. The wine produced from Castets is deeply colored, highly alcoholic, and tannic with little acidity.

A cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, Marselan was developed in the Southern French town of Marseillan, one of the oldest communes in France with the Languedoc where the Romans originally established a port for trade.

And Touriga Nacional, the late-ripening Portuguese variety known for giving structure and body to Port and Portuguese still wines thanks to the high tannin and intense concentration of the grape.

Albarino and steamed Atlantic clams

The two newly approved white varieties include Alvarinho (in Portuguese) also knowns as Albarino in Spain, the sunshine, citrus, and white flower filled beauty with a hint of salinity, often bringing in intense crushed stone minerality, thanks in part to the rocky, granite filled vineyards of Green Spain and Vinho Verde. The last, Liliorila, is a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay created in France in the mid-1950s.

Though the change is impactful, especially when you consider tradition, history, and the culture of wine-growing in France, the effects will be minimal. Plantings of these varieties can start this year, but only in small quantities. For now, these new varieties are limited to 5% of the planted vineyard area and cannot account for more than 10% of the final blend, whether it be red or white wine.