Tradition, tradition, tradition… For decades, Bordeaux winemakers have dug in their heels, hanging steadfastly onto customs and habits that date back centuries. In France, the reputation for a wine has been based on custom (i.e., know-how, terroir, appellation d’origine controlee/AOC – protected designation of origin). It was “believed” that consumers purchased French wine based on reputation and therefore strict regulations on viticulture and winemaking were enforced. By “tradition,” the Bordeaux wine industry was predicated upon close relationships between wine growers (estates), brokers (coutriers), and wine merchants (negociants) who sold the wine on behalf of the growers.
The Bordeaux market includes almost 7000 wine growers, 80 wine brokers, and 300 wine merchants. A wine broker assists in the chateau’s pricing policy and earns a percentage of the transaction (two percent in Bordeaux). The wine brokers activities are governed and ruled by the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Although ocean breezes mitigated some of the effects of global warming Starting in 2010 changes in weather patterns have been noted by Bordeaux winemakers and these weather issues can no longer be ignored especially when temperatures changes are paired with violent fluctuations ranging from rain during the harvest season to frost, hail storms and dry summers…ignorance is no longer bliss.
Taking a positive step in January 2021, Bordeaux leadership authorized the introduction of four new red varieties: Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional plus two whites, Alvarinho and Lilorila grapes to be planted in Bordeaux with the opportunity to use up to 10 percent of these varieties in the blend. These grapes have been approved because they ripen late and can deal with hydric stress which blocks the vegetative cycle, imparting color changes, defoliation, sugar progression or even a drop in yield during some periods of a heatwave. Bordeaux blends can include Merlot (66 percent of planted vineyards), Cabernet Sauvignon (22.5 percent), Cabernet Franc (9.5 percent) and lesser varieties (2 percent) of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere.
With an eye toward sustainability, woods, forests and hedges are being planted in and around the vineyards. Recognizing that chemicals have not enriched the soil, toxic fertilizers are being eliminated and biodiversity has become a popular alternative. Vineyard owners and managers are adding parkland, trees and forests along with beehives to help propagation. To bring life back to the soil, cereals, clover and other crops are being introduced with the objective of becoming sustainable and even biodynamic in the vineyards. The sustainability mantra extends to the cellars and techniques have been introduced that capture carbon dioxide and recycle it with some vineyard managers selling the potassium bicarbonate that is the byproduct of CO2.
In 2020, organic farming increased by 43 percent to 49,000 acres while in 2019, 55 percent of products used in vineyard management were suitable for organic viticulture, compared to 30 percent in 2009. The path to sustainability is a long, arduous and expensive route and the vast majority of Bordeaux’s 5500 growers are not as flexible or as wealthy as the vineyard owners/managers who have introduced sustainable practices.
Impact on Merlot
The impact of the weather on red wine from recent vintages is evident in the alcohol level which has increased (since 2016) from traditional 13 -13.5 percent alcohol by volume (abv) to 14-15 percent and is most obvious in Merlot, the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux. Young Merlot vines are poorly planted with roots too shallow making them unable to withstand the stress of summer temperatures.
For Merlot growers seeking to replace their crop, subsidies are available. In vineyards located in Saint Emilion (Cabernet Franc) and in the Medoc and Graves (Cabernet Sauvignon) there is less impact from climate change (at this time) so these varieties can be used instead of Merlot. Malbec is another option as it ripens reliably and late.
Red, White or Rose; Still or Fizz
Red Bordeaux wines remain popular, and dry white Bordeaux wines are gaining traction. The US is the major market for dry white Bordeaux representing 5.2 million bottles in annual sales. The American market is not a mono-market and sales increased from affordable everyday selections to classified growths from prestige AOCs including Medoc, Pauillac, St. Estephe, Saint Julien, Margaux), Graves and Satin-Emilion.
While the weather may be giving Bordeaux winemakers migraines, they are wearing happy faces as exports have increased by 16 percent in volume and 37 percent in value to 2.3 billion Euros, a record high. Leading the growth are US and China. With the Trump wine tax removed by Biden, Bordeaux wines currently attractive are from the 18, 19 and 20 vintages. Wine sales in Bordeaux growth is attributed to: renewed consumer demand for wine; reopening of bars and restaurants; high recognition of quality and affordability of 2018 and 2019 wine vintages and suspension of the 24 percent tariffs on French wines.
Positive sales trends impacted 65 of Bordeaux’s diverse AOCs and all wine types (red, dry white, rose, sweet, and sparkling); however, red wines remain the most prominent category in the US market with dry white Bordeaux becoming increasingly popular. The US is the number 1 market for dry white Bordeaux, representing 4.13 million bottles.
Sixteen percent of wines produced worldwide are from France and the country is the largest consumer of wines internationally. The wine industry is responsible for contributing 7.6 billion Euros to the French economy through exports and provides jobs for over one-half a million people. The wine industry even sustains tourism, with 24 million foreigners visiting the wine regions of France each year.
This is a series focusing on Bordeaux wine.
Read Part 1 Here: Bordeaux Wines: Started with Slavery
Read Part 2 Here: Bordeaux Wine: Pivot from People to the Soil
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.