Bordeaux Evolves, sort of

bordeaux chateauSince the mid-20th Century when the French AOC regulations were established, there have been 5 permitted grape varieties for red wines with “Bordeaux” on the label. (There are 9 permissible varietals for white wine) That is about to change. Bordeaux wineries recently authorized seven new wine grapes for Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. (Subject to approval by government regulatory agencies)

The newly permitted red grapes include the Portuguese varietal Touriga Nacional, Marselan (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache), Arinarnoa (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat), and the obscure Castets. White varieties include Petite Manseng, Lillioria, and most importantly the Iberian grape Alvarinho.

The justification given for the change is that these additional varietals will help Bordeaux cope with the consequences of climate change. For red wines, the worry is that Bordeaux’s bargain wine workhorse, Merlot, ripens too early in hot weather thus producing too much alcohol and too little flavor. The white grapes tend to lose their floral characteristics when they get too ripe. The newly permitted grapes are late ripeners that will increase the options for winemakers trying to correct perceived flaws in hot vintages.

Bordeaux is, of course, well known for its commitment to tradition. So this change seems like a big deal. But in fact the change is quite limited. It applies only to entry-level wines. The classed growth wines are not affected. Growers can plant only 5% of their vineyards with these new grapes and they can make up only 10% of a blend. In other words, they are unlikely to significantly alter the flavor profile of Bordeaux wines. Evolution is a mighty slow business.

W. Blake Gray argues that these changes indicate a willingness on the part of the Bordelais to experiment and think long-term while Napa remains bound to the pursuit of short-term profits continuing to produce the heat-intolerant Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

If Napa growers were thinking about their vineyards in a timeline of decades, they’d be planting more Zinfandel now so they could leave behind old vines. Or they’d plant Touriga Nacional. But for short-term profits, nothing makes as much sense as Cabernet. In Portugal, they say people buy Port wines for their grandkids. In California, we just assume we won’t have any, and if we do, they’re on their own.

I agree that U.S. wineries don’t think of themselves as multi-generational institutions. But I’m not persuaded the recent changes in Bordeaux show that it’s evolving more quickly than Napa. Napa can already include any grape they want in a blend. AVA rules stipulate that a wine labeled “Cabernet Sauvignon” must include only 75% Cabernet grapes. The remaining percentage can be made up of any of the hundreds of varietals registered by the TTB. Furthermore, it’s estimated that 36 distinct varietals are grown in the Napa Valley many of them more heat tolerant that Merlot and Cabernet.

Bordeaux is not evolving faster than Napa. It’s barely started to evolve at all. This doesn’t excuse Napa’s short-term thinking. But I doubt Bordeaux provides an inspiring model of innovation for Napa to emulate.

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