Climate change: the future of Bordeaux

Europe Magazine

Status: 09.10.2022 03:43

In Bordeaux, winegrowers have to deal with increasingly extreme weather conditions. They want to arm themselves against climate change with new grape varieties and special cultivation methods.

By Friederike Hofmann, ARD Studio Paris

At first glance it looks like a huge tractor is about to drive over the fringed vines in the vineyard 30 kilometers from Bordeaux: back, forth, back, again. But it is the harvester that is running at full speed, shaking the vines with its large teeth so hard that the grapes are shaken off. When it comes to harvesting, everything has to go very quickly. The Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe – much earlier than usual.

Winemaker Valérie Labrousse is the fifth woman in the family to run the “Château du Payre”. She produces red wine, white wine and rosé on 40 hectares. It has not been an easy year for her: “There are holes in the vines. They are not that full. We will miss some volume when making wine,” she explains. The season was just too hot and too dry like in 2018 – and started very early: “So we started harvesting very early, on August 24,” says Labrousse.

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Friederike Hofmann, ARD Paris, Weltspiegel, October 9, 2022

The winemaker is struggling with increasingly extreme weather conditions – and the climate in the region is changing: According to calculations by the European project Adviclim, the average temperature has already risen by 1.5 degrees. “We notice the climate change in the details. The vines are suffering, they don’t have enough water. We are not allowed to water the Bordeaux,” says Labrousse.

Valérie Labrousse is experimenting with two of the newly approved grape varieties.

Image: Charlotte Maxin/WDR

A short-term benefit?

According to the trade association for Bordeaux wines CVIB, the effects on aging could even be positive in the short term. However, the rating would change if temperatures were to rise permanently. The scenarios for how much temperatures could rise in the Bordeaux region by the end of the century range from 0.6 to 5.3 degrees.

As one of the first winegrowers in the region, Labrousse is experimenting with other grape varieties that are more resistant to more extreme weather conditions: such as Marselan, a hybrid of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache approved in 1961, which ripens later and is more resistant to heat and cold. Or Arinarnoa, a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1950s, which produces little sugar even when hot and is more resistant to certain mold types. They are among the six grape varieties approved for Bordeaux alongside the classic grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot. Among them is Touriga Nacional, a grape from Portugal, and Castet, an old variety that was almost forgotten.

More sun – more alcohol content

The wine specialists at the National Research Institute for Agriculture (ISVV/INRAE) in Villenave-d’Ornon are working on the future of Bordeaux. “Climate change has been noticeable here since 1990. As a result, the wines now contain more alcohol and the acidity has dropped significantly,” says agricultural engineer Agnès Destrac-Irvine.

For the Bordeaux to remain a Bordeaux, alternatives must be found: the institute’s research vineyard grows more than 50 grape varieties from all over the world. The researchers are researching wine varieties that ripen later. The big question: how do the foreign grape varieties develop on the local soil – and is the taste good?

A grape variety from Cyprus is pureed in the high-tech mixer in the laboratory. Destrac-Irvine accurately weighs and measures the sugar and acid content of the grapes over a long period of time. “We now make wine from the grapes, very small batches at a time. Then experts evaluate it and see if the wine is comparable to a product made from traditional Bordeaux grapes,” she explains. The grape variety from Cyprus looks promising.

Agricultural engineer Agnès Destrac-Irvine is investigating which grape varieties are also suitable for Bordeaux.

Image: Charlotte Maxin/WDR

Tradition evolves

Winemaker Xavier Planty thinks it makes sense to try new things, even though he is considered one of the keepers of the Bordeaux wine tradition. “Tradition also means things keep evolving,” he says. “But I am also convinced that we can still achieve a lot with our local grape varieties.” Planty used to have a large organic winery and was something of a Bordeaux organic pioneer. He is now retired, but still makes wine.

He is convinced that the right cultivation method can protect the grapes from extreme heat and drought. This year, despite the high temperatures, he hardly had any crop failures. His recipe: let the vine grow taller. “The higher the leaves grow, the deeper the roots are in the soil. They get more water. And the leaves also protect the vines,” he explains.

He also grows grass between the vines. As a result, less water evaporates – the soil remains “alive,” Planty says, “The grass acts as a natural fertilizer for the vines.”

Xavier Planty relies on adapted cultivation methods to combat climate change.

Image: Charlotte Maxin/WDR

The great unknown: the taste

Winemaker Labrousse wants to press her first cuvée of her two new grape varieties this year: “I don’t know what will come out,” she says. “We only have a rough idea. By choosing these two grape varieties, the wine becomes quite fruity, but with structure.”

Theoretically, up to ten percent of the newly approved grapes should already be used in Bordeaux wines. But Labrousse wants to play it safe and first press his own wine from the new grapes: “For us, the new grapes are not about quantity, but quality,” she says.

For them, this testing phase is just the beginning. “You have to think long term,” she says. Because their vines are on average 30 years old.

You can see these and other reports in the “Europamagazine” on Sunday 9 October 2022 at 12.45 pm.

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