Sheep grazing in the vineyards at Château Cheval Blanc / Photo by Gérard Uféras
Bordeaux is in crisis. It’s a slow, simmering crisis, but a crisis nevertheless. Climate change is altering the region and can’t be ignored.
Its ocean climate mitigated the warming and kept things stable for a while. But since 2010, the pace has quickened, and now Bordeaux must adapt.
At first, the effects seemed positive. Vintages became more regular, with fewer disasters (the last was 2013). A golden age, perhaps? But change has also manifested itself in less beneficial ways. At the same time, violent weather events—frost, hail, storms, rain at harvest, dry summers—have become more frequent.
“These events cause enormous pressure on the vines with mildew and stress, while growers struggle to keep pace,” says Stéphane Derenoncourt, a consultant who works with chateaus across Bordeaux.
Feeling the Impact
Perhaps the most obvious effect on the red wine from recent vintages has been on the alcohol level, particularly since 2016. It’s shot up from the traditional 13% or 13.5% alcohol by volume (abv) to 14% and even 15%. That is particularly true where Merlot, still the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, is concerned. Clones have not helped.
“Most Merlot clones are wrong, developed for fruit and sugar,” says Claire Villars-Lurton, owner of chateaus in Pauillac and Margaux. Merlot is also most prone to spring frosts (as in 2021 and 2017) and mildew.
“It’s complicated for growers to change their ways, hard to change institutions that move as fast as their slowest members.” —Claire Villars-Lurton, owner of chateaus in Pauillac and Margaux
The monoculture of Bordeaux’s vast 270,000 acres of vines (Napa by comparison has 45,000 acres) has not helped either. Vineyard after vineyard with no breaks for trees or grasslands spread diseases quickly.
“The combination of climate change, an ocean climate and monoculture has been a real headache,” says Derenoncourt.
Changes in the Vineyard
If Bordeaux was late in waking up to climate change, it is moving now. Perhaps the most headline-grabbing event was in January 2021, when the authorities gave permission for four new red varieties—Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional—and two whites —Alvarinho and Lilorila—to be planted in Bordeaux. Winemakers can use up to 10% of these varieties in a blend.
The varieties were chosen because they ripen late, therefore escaping spring frosts, and can deal with hydric stress. Bordeaux wine is made from any blend of Merlot (66% of planted vineyards), Cabernet Sauvignon (22.5%), Cabernet Franc (9.5%) and lesser varieties (2%) of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère.
Headlines aside, Bordeaux is adapting in quieter ways. The landscape is being changed. A panoply of solutions is being deployed.
“We wanted to bring the soil back to life, and we also wanted to create cool areas in the vineyard to reduce summer temperatures.”—Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director of Château Cheval Blanc
More woods, forests and hedges are being introduced to break up the monotony of vineyards. The soil, once sterile from too many chemicals, is being brought back to life. Space is being given to animals and insects. Call it biodiversity, and you would be right.
Jean-Christophe Mau, owner of Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan, is one of the producers who is promoting these developments. The estate, an oasis in suburban Bordeaux, is 148 acres, of which 76 are vines. The rest is parkland, trees and forest. Mau is leaving these and planting more trees and flowers. Beehives have been established to help propagation. The estate is being managed to allow as many species as possible to thrive.