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Syrah in Bordeaux?

Jane Anson (New Bordeaux Blog) has written an interesting article for Decanter titled Merlot ‘impossible’ in Bergerac. She has reported that one of Bergerac’s most renowned winemakers, Hugh Ryman of Chateau de la Jaubertie, has claimed that global warming is making Merlot impossible in the region. He said he had not planted a Merlot vine since 2000, and he was replacing all his existing Merlot with Cabernet Franc or Malbec. He is also using vinification methods such as colder temperatures and shorter maceration times which are used to make wine in hotter climates.

The problem wine makers are finding with the Merlot grape is the difficulty in reaching full tannin maturity before alcohol levels get too high: “The wine has good mouthfeel but loses the fruit character. And what’s the point of Merlot at 15 or 16 degrees?”

Merlot is one of the 6 grape varieties permissible in the blending of Bordeaux red wines and adds body and softness to the wine. It ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, has a thin skin and contains fewer tannins. Also compared to Cabernet, Merlot grapes tend to have a higher sugar content and lower malic acid. Merlot thrives in cold soil, particularly ferrous clay.

As Merlot tends to bud early it encounters some risk to frost and its thin skin increases its susceptibility to rot. A characteristic of Merlot is the propensity to quickly over ripen once it hits its initial ripeness level, sometimes in a matter of a few days. Merlot is favoured on the Right Bank of the Gironde in the regions of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion where it will commonly comprises the majority of the blend. One of the most famous and rare wines in the world, Château Pétrus, is almost all Merlot. In Pomerol, where Merlot usually accounts for around 80% of the blend, the iron-clay soils of the region give Merlot more a tannic backbone than what is found in other Bordeaux regions. It was in Pomerol that the garagiste movement began with small scale production of highly sought after Merlot based wines.

In the sandy, clay-limestone based soils of Saint-Emilion, Merlot accounts for around 60% of the blend and is usually blended with Cabernet Franc. In limestone, Merlot tends to develop more perfume notes while in sandy soils the wines are generally softer than Merlot grown in clay dominant soils.

Jane reports that Alain Reynaud, owner of Chateau Le Croix de Gay in Pomerol and consultant for over 10 properties in the region has said: “As long as I have clay soils, I will plant Merlot. But temperatures do seem to be rising, and if I had more gravel, I would love the right to plant Syrah in Bordeaux.”

In the early 1900s Bordeaux winemakers often added small percentages of Northern Rhône Syrah to their wines if they had a difficult vintage and in 2004 Chateau Palmer revived this 19th century practice by making an experimental cuvée (only 100 cases), called Historical 19th Century Wine L2004. It’s a blend of 85% 2004 estate fruit from Palmer and 15% Syrah from Hermitage.

Thomas Duroux, winemaker at Palmer, explained that “Most of the great names of Bordeaux used to have a little bit of wine from the north of the Rhône to improve the colour and depth of the wine. They had to do this sometimes since they had difficult vintages. We now know how to deal with difficult vintages. But I was very curious to understand what would happen if we did [this] with the wine we have today.”

The wine was only available in select restaurants in the United States and as the wine was made outside the regional rules it can only be classified as the lowest French designation, “vin de table.” Duroux even had to take the drawing of Château Palmer off his front label, since vin de table cannot, by law, have an illustration of a particular place on the label.

Back in January this year I reported that the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux (Bordeaux Wines Union) has asked the INAO for permission to plant experimental trials of grapes that are not part of the official Bordeaux grape varieties allowed to make wine – Whatever Next! Bordeaux Chardonnay and Zinfandel?

Hervé Lalau, Secretary General of the Fédération Internationale des Journalistes et Ecrivains du Vin said that the new grapes are 3 new white varietals: Chardonnay, Petit Manseng and Liliorila, 4 reds: Syrah, Marselan, Arinarnoa and Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc for the sparkling wines. The suggestion is that they would in the future be allowed up to 10% in the blend. If the regional and national committees of INAO agree to this, then 4 estates will vinify each new variety (150 hectolitres minimum) for 5 years. Then, if the tests are satisfactory, the use of the new grapes will be permitted in the Bordeaux regulations.

At the time I thought that this idea was half baked (and got quoted on it) as the grapes that go into Bordeaux are acclimatised to the terroir and reflect this in the wine. I wondered if adding other grapes to the blend from different regions would mean that the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux are attempting to change the character of Bordeaux wines to that of their New World cousins? Would we be drinking Zinfandel from Bordeaux in the future? I hope not. However I am now wondering if Bordeaux will have to deal with half baked Merlot in the future and if so, would a return to old practices be necessary? I suppose only time will tell.

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