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Bordeaux readies to plant southern varieties in face of climate crisis

Published:  15 October, 2019

As the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon is picked in what looks to be a ‘good’ 2019 vintage, Bordeaux is gearing up for what may be the most significant change in vineyard complexion since the ravages of phylloxera in the late 1800s.

During a now typical harvest, coming in two weeks earlier than just 20 years ago, the AoP governing authorities have officially voted in the use of seven new grape varieties, which the CIVB says now just need to be ‘rubber stamped’ ahead of planting next year.

Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets and Arinarnoa will join the more regular reds, while Albariño, Petit Manseng and Liliorila will be planted alongside the permitted whites.

The move to bring in varieties, including southern French, Spanish and Portuguese grapes, is in response to ongoing climate change and its effect on the Bordeaux vineyards, where longer hot and dry summer periods are currently among the most prominent changes in the weather patterns.

The CIVB also confirms that plantings of Petit Verdot (a late ripener) and Carmenere are on the rise, being varieties that are better adapted than Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to withstand a hotter climate.

Speaking to Harpers about the effects of climate change, CIVB vice president Allan Sichel outlined a clear vision for adapting the region to change.

“In terms of picking dates, everything we’ve seen in the last few years – the vegetative cycle and picking dates have come forward - when compared to the 30 year average, [the harvest] has been brought forward by about two weeks,” he confirmed.

While saying that “until now, all these effects have been very positive” for Bordeaux wines. Sichel added that at current rates of warming it has been necessary to plan for a very different future.

“What we can’t do is not do anything in the face of climate change – it is happening, with all prediction saying more warming, gaining another 1C° to 1.5 C° in next 20 or 30 years, which we can’t ignore.

“We need to adapt the vineyard to a makeup more suited to warmer temperatures - new grape varieties that will maintain the Bordeaux style of wine, based on fruit quality and harmony and structure and balance,” said Sichel.

He spoke of a need to adjust viticulture and winemaking techniques, too, as part of this ongoing evolution to meet the challenges of ensuring that the essential character of Bordeaux is retained.

Up to 5% of a given grower or producer’s vineyards will be permitted to be planted to the new varieties, with up to 10% allowed in the blend when the first of these “experimental” grapes make it into the wines in five to six years time.

The new varieties will initially be authorised for use in wines coming under broader appellations such as Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superior and Entre-Deux-Mer.

“We are going prudently and carefully, on the basis of experimentation, and we will learn,” said Sichel.