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The Future Bordeaux – No More Merlot?

The weather is a hot topic at the moment in scientific circles as well as amongst us ordinary folk. The big question seems to be whether climate change, and in particular global warming, is making our weather worse – or not. Two recent articles on the topic have highlighted the problem that Bordeaux faces in the future, the first Climate Change Threatens French Wine at the Global Post quotes Herve Lethielleux, co-owner of L’Etiquette, a wine boutique in central Paris, as saying:

In 20 years, the English will be making Grenache from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.”

This, I doubt, given the fact that the dreadful British weather has devastated our nascent wine production with Wickham Vineyard having ceased trading just before Christmas and Nyetimber abandoning the 2012 harvest. Besides which I wouldn’t say Grenache wouldn’t be an ideal candidate for growing in England even if we had warmed up in 20 year’s time as it doesn’t do well in wet weather. With climate change, warming does not necessarily mean we will suffer from heat waves and drought – the UK is probably more likely to suffer from extremes, including an increase in wet weather.

Lethielleux went on to tell the Global Post that many of the winemakers with whom he works have been documenting gradual but persistent changes in climate over the past decades — and noting increasingly earlier harvest dates with growing alarm. “The grapes just aren’t ripening properly,” he adds.

The article raises some interesting points with Gregory Jones, a research climatologist at Southern Oregon University saying that: “If you look at Tasmania, it was too cool to grow grapes 25 to 40 years ago. Today, it’s clearly much more suitable.” It also quotes Jean-Pascal Goutouly, a researcher at the Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin (ISVV), part of the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Bordeaux, saying that despite the rising concern a full-on crisis mode hasn’t yet arrived:

Things are okay for the moment. We still have the possibility to adapt to the conditions.”

However the important question the article raises is “Will people have to change what they’re planting to adapt?” The answer is undoubtedly “yes”.

The second article from La Tribune, The Bordealise Search for Solutions to Tackle the Effects of Global Warming goes some way to answer this question. Its author, Nicolas César, states that the effects of global warming are already being felt in the vineyards; the grapes are harvested earlier and wines have reduced acidity and higher alcohol content: “Tomorrow, French wine will not taste the same . . . In Bordeaux, professionals need to adapt.”

César also quotes Jean-Pascal Goutouly at INRA and ISVV as saying that over the last 50 years the average temperature has risen by about 1 degree in French vineyards and in 2050, the temperature should have risen 2.4 degrees. The concern is that wines in the future will lose their ability to age, and therefore their value. Higher alcohol content will also impact on exports as many countries tax the wine according to its alcohol content. Furthermore there is a growing trend against high alcohol wines with people preferring less alcoholic tipples that are more digestible.

INRA’s response to this has been to launch a program called “quality wine at low alcohol” (VDQA), bringing together 12 public and private partners. Apparently a technique to dealcoholize wines has already been developed. In the short term, changes in vineyard management are being suggested by Serge Delrot, Director of ISVV and researcher at INRA. Delrot also coordinates a working group devoted to the adaptation of the vine to climate change in the context of the European project KBBE Innovine, which begins this January 2013. Another imperative is the genetic selection of clones which are less rich in sugar and ripen more slowly.

Jean-Pascal Goutouly has warned that global warming may cause the disappearance of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot grapes in Bordeaux. In Chile, for example, global warming has led to Merlot being replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon.

INRA has been experimenting with grape varieties not traditionally used in Bordeaux for a while now (see my blog Syrah in Bordeaux?) and Delrot has planted a parcel containing 52 varieties grafted on the same rootstock to study. The varieties planted not only include the traditional Bordeaux grape varieties but also Mediterranean and South European grape varieties that can withstand high heat (Tempranillo from Spain, Sangiovese from Italy, Touriga Nacional from Portugal etc). The idea behind this is to identify the variety that can best adapt to climate change.

Before we all start throwing our hands up in horror at the potential loss of Merlot it’s important to remember that the Bordeaux red wine (or Claret) as we know it has only been in existence since 1936 when the INAO (National Institute for Appellations of Origin) was set up. The INAO established the appellations and what grape varieties went into the blend. Before this in 1905 regulations were in effect but they were difficult to enforce.

The Bordeaux of the late 1800s contained long forgotten grape varieties such as Gros Verdot (Chateau Lafite used it in 1868) and pre 1850 Bordeaux used Alicante and Bénicarlo grape varieties as well as wines from the Rhone and Valencia in the blend. Merlot was not introduced to Bordeaux until the mid-1850s (see my blog Bordeaux 2010, Climate Change and the Wine of the Future for more information).

So it seems Bordeaux has always adapted to what the climate has to throw at it . . .

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5 Responses to The Future Bordeaux – No More Merlot?

  1. Peter May says:

    Yeah….. but……

    There was a chart of Champagne vintage dates going back to the beginning of the 1940’s in Drinks Business last year and there was a curve showing dates getting later from that date then getting earlier so todays harvest dates were the same as in the 1940’s.

    Yeah,wine is getting more alcoholic but a lot of that is to do with better viticulture, more productive rootstocks and more efficient yeasts and knowledge of phenolic ripeness plus better weather forecasting so you have longer hang time rather than the previous practise of just picking the grapes when they seemed ripe and without risking rain.

    And if Bdx wine is not what it was when I started drinking it then goodoh because much was dilute thin and acidic. And the reason you had to long keep it was to bring it to a drinkable stage. Now it is easy to get young well made fruity good bodied well made and inexpensive Bdx

    But if it does get hot enough to grow grenache in England — bring it on I say!! I’m fed up with the cold.

  2. allan says:

    I am starting to see some estates, notably Brane-Cantenac experiment with Carmenere, which is more forgiving of the heat.

    • Nick says:

      That’s a great point Allan – it’s interesting how Carmenere is being planted once more in Bordeaux. Chateaux Clerc Milon and Haut Bailly also have some small plots of it harking back to the days when it was once widely grown before phylloxera struck.



  3. gdfo says:

    Any scientist or physicist will tell you that everything is in constant motion, everything is changing. You could almost think that, everything has been changing in the past too. Change and eliminate what is bad or not working and incorporate what is good and functional, and probably it is true then also of vineyards and making good quality wines.

    Not spare change, just the right Change.