Bordeaux Approves Six New Grape Varieties to Battle Climate Change

The new additions can still only be used in limited quantities in Bordeaux blends.

As climate change continues to affect the French winemaking industry, the Bordeaux wines we've come to know and love may be different, but at least the region is actively preparing for its survival. In 2019, perhaps the world's best-known wine region proposed adding seven new grape varieties to the six red and eight white varieties already permitted to be used in bottles of Bordeaux. All of the new suggestions were specifically chosen for their potential to flourish even in the less hospitable conditions caused by global warming.

Despite upending generations of tradition, yesterday, France's Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualite (INAO) officially approved six of those new varieties, with plantings allowed as soon as this coming season. The decision is billed by the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) as "the culmination of over a decade of research by wine scientists and growers of Bordeaux to address the impact of climate change through highly innovative, eco-friendly measures."

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The newly approved varieties are four reds—Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, and Touriga Nacional—and two whites—Alvarinho and Liliorila—all of which are described as "well-adapted to alleviate hydric stress associated with temperature increases and shorter growing cycles."

Arinarnoa is cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon created in France in 1956. Castets is a native French variety described as a "long-forgotten Bordeaux grape." Marselan is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache developed in France in 1961. And Touriga Nacional is a late-ripening grape of Portuguese origin. Speaking of which, Alvarinho is the Portuguese name for Albarino, potentially making this new white the best-known variety of the bunch. And finally, Liliorila is a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay, reportedly created in France also in 1956.

Interestingly, Petit Manseng—a late-ripening white grape popular in South West France and often used in dessert wines—was part of the 2019 list, but did not make the final cut. A CIVB spokesperson told me that INAO decided that the grape was too "emblematic" of its Pyrenees-Atlantique origins and chose not to allow its production in Bordeaux in an effort to protect the specificity of the country's wine regions (similar to how INAO wouldn't allow Bordeaux to use Burgundy's signature Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes).

Regardless, Petit Manseng was not alone: CIVB says that over 52 varieties were considered over the past decade of research, meaning Petit Manseng was simply the last grape to be sent packing.

These six new grapes join Bordeaux's previously approved varieties (which any wine buff has memorized, right?): the reds being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere, Petit Verdot, and the whites being Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Merlot Blanc, and Mauzac.

That said, the new grapes are still officially listed in the national guidelines as "new varieties of interest for adapting to climate change"—a tertiary group behind the "major" and "additional" grape varieties. (Their status will be revisited again in 10 years, according to a CIVB spokesperson.) As such, use of the new grapes is limited: Vines can only account for up to 5 percent of the planted vineyard area and cannot account for more than 10 percent of a wine blend. Interestingly, as CIVB points out, this latter rule means that, due to France's existing labeling regulations, these new varieties will not appear on Bordeaux labels. So their work to battle climate change will go relatively uncredited for now.

In announcing the change, CIVB added that climate change has already caused a shift in which grapes vineyards are favoring, specifically citing the example that the late-ripening Petit Verdot has seen its plantings jump 191 percent as of 2018.

Meanwhile, CIVB says that the new grapes are just one of many ways the region is shifting to adapt to modern weather patterns. Other enological and agricultural changes "include adapting best practices to the needs of each vintage, such as delayed pruning; increasing vine trunk height to reduce leaf area; limiting leaf-thinning to protect grapes from sun; adapting plot sites to minimize hydric stress; night harvesting; and reducing plant density," the council wrote. They then concluded, "Bordeaux winegrowers are planning well ahead in the quest to continue offering consumers aromatic, balanced wines of quality."

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