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Right Bank under threat as adaptability of Merlot cools

Published:  06 July, 2020

The traditional Merlot-dominant blends of Bordeaux’s Right Bank are being threatened by global warming, according to leading winemakers in the region.

Saskia de Rothschild, chairman of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, told Harpers that her family were “planning for the future” in anticipation of changing growing conditions.

“We’ve had a run of excellent vintages in Bordeaux, but this doesn’t mean we are not extraordinarily wary,” said de Rothschild.

“This is especially the case on the right bank for L’Evangile, where Merlot is the main varietal and has a great sensitivity to heat. This means we are planning to plant more Cabernet Franc and even Cabernet Sauvignon to make sure we build a balanced blend for our future vintages. It’s a long-term guessing game as these planting decisions will take full effect in a decade’s time, so let’s hope they are the right ones.”

Other properties in neighbouring St-Emilion are also taking steps to ensure that their wines remain “balanced and approachable.”

Chateau Lassègue's winemaker Nicolas Seillan admitted that the estate had replaced a block of Merlot with Cabernet Franc in recent times.

“We see a bright future for Cabernet Franc at Chateau Lassègue,” said Seillan.

“Yet we shouldn’t forget that the microclimate of each parcel and the viticultural choices by the vigneron have a lot of influence as well. Saint-Emilion as an appellation has many different pockets with different microclimates and soil types, so it’s difficult to generalise across the entire appellation.”

Chateau Angelus’ MD Stephanie de Bouard added that she felt massal selection offered another solution in being able to grow Merlot in warmer conditions.

“Nevertheless, Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon will certainly play a significant role in the blends in the context of global warming, but what matters most are the soils they will be planted into,” said de Bouard.

“To grow and obtain beautiful Cabernet Franc, it is necessary to have soils with substantial clay but not in excess of 10% to 20%.”

Winemakers across Europe are increasingly concerned about Merlot’s fragility in light of rising temperatures.

Ornellaia’s estate director Axel Heinz has rented a vineyard planted with Montepulciano in Bolgheri – a variety which performs very well in hotter conditions.

“Late-ripening varieties are going to be very important in the years to come,” said Heinz.

“But Merlot is undeniably suffering. We have some Merlot planted on sandy soils, which do not benefit from the cooling influences inherent to our higher altitude terroirs, which are closer to the sea. In the future, it may be the case that we have to rip it out.”