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Bordeaux Wine: Pivot from People to the Soil

image courtesy of Elle Hughes

Wine has been made in the Bordeaux wine region since the Romans settled in the area (60 BC). The Romans were the first to plant vineyards (possible obtained from Rioja, Spain) and produce wine in the area. Even at the beginning in the 1st century AD, the regional wines were appreciated and distributed to Roman soldiers, and citizens in Gaul and Britain. In Pompeii, fragments of Amphorae have been discovered that mention Bordeaux. The area was perfect for cultivating grapes for wine including the unique combination of the right soil, marine climate, and easy access to the Garonne River that was necessary for shipping wines to Roman territories.

In 1152, the heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine, married the future king of England, Henry Plantagenet, later known as King Henry 11. By the late 1300s, Bordeaux had become a large city and by the 14th century Bordeaux wines were exported to England from St. Emilion for the pleasure of King Edward I.

Richard the Lionheart, the son of Eleanor and Henry II, made Bordeaux wine his everyday beverage and, the wine-buying public agreed finding that – if it were good enough for the King, it was good enough for all loyal British wine lovers.

Dutch Advances in Bordeaux

The Dutch were also lovers of Bordeaux wine; however, they were concerned with the best value wines of the Bordeaux appellation and this was a problem because the Dutch needed their wines to be delivered quickly before they spoiled. They wanted wines for the lowest price and these wines spoiled quickly so they came up with the idea to burn sulfur in barrels, aiding the wine’s ability to last and age. The Dutch are also credited with the idea of draining the marshes and swamps, allowing for quicker transportation of their Bordeaux wines and making more vineyard space available and thereby increasing the quantity of Bordeaux wines.

Focus on Terroir

When we enjoy a glass of wine, it rarely occurs to us that winemaking is based on the soil, the grapes, the weather, and although wine has been made in the laboratory, a really good glass of wine is dependent on the farmer and the winemakers/scientists who take the grape and, almost like alchemists, turn the little berry into glasses of red, white, rose, and sparkling wines.

Viticulture is Agri-business

Viticulture is a broad term encompassing the cultivation, protection, and harvesting of grapes where operations are outdoors. Enology is the science dealing with wine and winemaking, including the fermentation of grapes into wine and mostly confined to indoors. A vineyard is a plantation of grape-bearing vines grown for winemaking, raisins, table grapes and nonalcoholic grape juice.

Viticulture has experienced one of the highest growths among agricultural commodities in terms of acreage and value over the past 30 years and is currently a global multibillion dollar enterprise.

Growth is attributed to:

1.            increased international trade

2.            improved global incomes

3.            changing policies

4.            technological innovations in production, storage, and transportation

5.            by-product processing and utilization leading to the development of novel and healthy products, combined with a greater awareness of the health benefits of foods rich in antioxidants like grapes.

Profitability

Wine grape growing is one of the most lucrative and culturally important cropping systems in the world. The wine agri-business was founded upon specific region-climate-cultivar rapports and now there is a growing concern that global warming could reshape these regions, pushing them to higher latitudes and elevations in search of cooler temperatures.

Cultivars are types of plants that have been cultivated and bred by human intervention. They are created when people take species of plants and breed them for specific traits (i.e., taste, color, resistance to pests). The new plant is grown from a stem cutting, grafting or tissue culture. The plant is bred purposefully until the desired trait becomes strong and noticeable.

A variety is a version of the plant that occurs naturally and is grown from the seed – having the same characteristics as the plant parent.

Grape varieties includes cultivated grapes and refers to cultivars rather than actually botanical varieties according to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivate Plants because they are propagated by cuttings and many have unstable reproductive properties.

Cultivars and Varieties

Specific wine grape cultivars each have an optimum temperature range within which they can reliably produce high quality wines with commercial acceptance. As regional climates warm outside of optimum ranges, wine quality is likely to decrease. For a region to survive it has to adapt, presumably by changing management strategies to maintain fruit and wine quality and/or changing cultivars to those better suited to the new, warmer climate norm.

Global Warming Industry Disaster

A major redistribution of wine growing regions could be catastrophic for numerous regional economies. Even changing cultivars could be extremely disruptive since they bring about the distinctiveness of the wines that define a regions identity.

Optimum temperature ranges are delimited by a lower threshold necessary to ripen the fruit and an upper threshold could lead to over ripe (or damaged) fruit. Ripe fruit must include sufficient levels of sugar (transformed into alcohol via fermentation) and secondary metabolites that contribute to the wine sensory profile (i.e., color, aromatics, flavor, mouthfeel). The concern is that higher temperatures could negatively impact fruit composition and wine quality. In the 1980s sugar concentrations began to increase significantly and has continued.

Although history finds the Bordeaux region has, for centuries, had the correct mix of a suitable climate, agriculture, manufacturing and trade to produce excellent wines, there are others who have determined that, “it is a good wine region because it tried to be” (Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine). 

Bordeaux produces one-third of France’s quality wine and made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Climate change influences the quality of wine and frequently determines premium wine-growing regions around the world. The optimal climate for growing grapes that can be made into high quality wine features wet, mild to cool winters, followed by warm springs then warm to hot summers with little precipitation.

Fortunately for Bordeaux, scientists have determined that climate change in the Bordeaux region in the second half of the 20th century were favorable for high quality wine production; however, recent climate and weather patterns have been less advantageous for winemaking with damages to the agricultural sector estimated at more than US $16 billion with nearly one-third of the losses occurring in France.

image courtesy of Mark Stebnicki

Bordeaux wine growers are facing the costs of adapting to a warming climate and they are investigating advances in genetics, breeding, and vineyard adaption to help mitigate some of the adverse effects of climate change in addition to a breeding program looking at developing heat resistant vine stock. Modifications in farming techniques include:

1.            Reducing leaf pulling to protect clusters from sunburn

2.            Harvesting at night

3.            Delaying pruning

4.            Increasing vine trunk height

5.            Reducing plant density

6.            Increasing biodiversity by installing beehives

7.            Creating a partnership with Ligue de Protection des Oiseaux to protect birds and encourage bats to eat bugs and other pests in the vineyard, reducing need for pesticides.

8.            Encouraging Haute Valeur Environmentale (High Environmental Value) of HVE where who vineyard systems are certified including reduction of water and fertilizer use, biodiversity conservation and plant protection strategies.

image courtesy of Edouard Chassaigne

This is a series focusing on Bordeaux wine.

Read Part 1 Here:  Bordeaux Wines: Started with Slavery

© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.

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About the author

Dr. Elinor Garely - special to eTN and editor in chief, wines.travel

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