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Winemaking in Bordeaux has a long-standing tradition of blending a selection of permitted grapes to best effect. The enduring popularity of these wines has made cabernet sauvignon and merlot the most widely planted wine grapes in the world, but concerns about the future have opened the door to some new varieties to help combat climate change.
The usual red suspects of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, carménère and petit verdot can now be joined by arinarnoa, castets, marselan and touriga nacional in vineyards that produce Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellation wines. (Close to 90 per cent of Bordeaux wine is red.)
New white grape alvarinho and lilorila are now permitted alongside sémillon, sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris, muscadelle, colombard, ugni blanc, merlot blanc and mauzac.
Recently approved for use by France’s Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, the grapes were selected for their ability to cope with warmer conditions and shorter growing cycles while offering natural resistance to common vineyard diseases, including grey rot and mildew. The annual grape harvest now starts approximately 20 days earlier than 30 years ago.
The new varieties were proposed – along with another white grape, petit manseng, which didn’t make the final cut – back in 2019 as growers sought more flexibility for the future. The request came following more than a decade of research prompted by concerns about the long-term viability of established grapes, particularly merlot, given the effects of climate change. More than 50 varieties were considered during the investigation period. Their standing will be revisited in 10 years.
Wine lovers won’t soon see a red wine made exclusively with touriga nacional or a single-variety alvarinho (also known as albarino) from Bordeaux. Likewise, these new additions to the landscape aren’t permitted to pop up in any of the celebrated and collectable classified growths from the famous chateaux. But they are believed to be important players in the continued success of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellation wines, which make up more than 50 per cent of Bordeaux’s annual production.
New regulations state the varieties can collectively make up 5 per cent of a producer’s vineyard and cannot account for more than 10 per cent of the final blend. Used in limited quantities, the new grapes offer beneficial characteristics for blended wines, such as high acidity, deep colour or bold tannins for structure. It is hoped they will contribute to the production of premium and distinctive Bordeaux wine styles. It will be interesting to see how wine regions around the world that model their wine styles on Bordeaux’s ripe and structured style react. Will castets, marselan and the others become as commonplace in regions such as Napa, Margaret River and Maipo, where wineries are seeking ways to cope with climate change?