The Modernization of Bordeaux
By Michael Palij, MW
The Paris riots and the French Revolution are both now well behind us but there is an insurrection of another kind currently underway in Bordeaux. The elephant in the room, of course, is global warming and, judging by the raisins that passed for healthy grapes on the vines in 2022, climate change has well and truly arrived in Aquitaine. If models are correct, Merlot will be unplantable by the end of the century. Without varieties that can cope with a rapidly warming climate, Bordeaux will be no more. Can we imagine Pauillac without Cabernet Sauvignon and Pomerol without Merlot?
Before throwing up our hands, it’s worth remembering that the Bordeaux we so revere today is largely a construct of the second half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Pomerol was not on anyone’s lips (the AOC dates from 1936) and the composition of vineyards in the pre-phylloxera era was significantly different to that of today. Is it no great shakes, then, that six new grape varieties have been added to Bordeaux’s hit list (Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets, Arinarnoa for red, Alvarinho and Liliorila for white)? Prudently, these upstarts will be permitted for no more than 5% of surface plantings and 10% of the final blend. For now. It’s always risky to rock the boat too vigorously, especially when the top estates can almost do no wrong.
What makes the change so noteworthy, however, is the pedestal on which Bordeaux perches. Demand for the top wines in insatiable. As recently as 2021 exports rose by 9% in volume, and 30% in value globally despite the Covid-affected annus horribilis. There is, however, a flip side to the crenelated châteaux and stratospheric price tags. For every Château Latour, there are a myriad of estates producing over-priced and over-extracted wines that exude little of Bordeaux’s elegant typicity. Meanwhile, at the other end of the AC pyramid, the area under vine has been increasing for 20 years and growers are struggling to make ends meet. AC Bordeaux trades as a commodity and no-one is buying this stuff, not even the French.
Change it seems, was long overdue, and it affects more than just the encepagement. Starting with the 2020 harvest, allowable yields have been cut with a declassification of 10% of red wine production into IGP. The Cru Bourgeois classification has returned to its former three-tier system with estates graded by the excellence their wines. Environmental responsibility is also on the up. Looking across the region, 90% of vineyards claim to no longer use herbicides; 60% of estates are certified by one of the many environmental regimes, and by 2025, there are plans for 100% accreditation.
Any revolution brings opportunity, and the ramparts of Bordeaux are crumbling, not tumbling. Value can still be found and so can genuinely exciting wines. They just may not conform to our preconceptions of what it is to be Bordeaux.
Michael Palij MW is the third Canadian Master of Wine. He specializes in Italian wines and has introduced Opimian to some truly special producers such as Cabutto, Giovanna Tantini and Cantina Clavesana.