New grapes in old French regions

The first steps are already being taken to introduce new, climate-appropriate grapes in French regions. Roger Morris reports.

Grapes at Ducourt, Bordeaux
Grapes at Ducourt, Bordeaux

The year is 2037, and your 21-year-old daughter is pulling the cork on that 2016 Méo-Camuzet Clos de Vougeot birth year wine you bought her back in 2019. As the two of you share the rich flavours, you can’t resist telling stories about the days when Pinot Noir was the only red grape grown on the Côte d’Or, a time when no one there made red blends.

It’s a scenario that French winegrowers are in the midst of planning for. Although governments elsewhere may be in denial about global warming, many in France are firmly convinced that, after years of indecision, their classic varieties will need to be blended with grapes from more heat-hardy and disease-resistant varieties – or possibly be replaced by them. Hallowed terroirs are being reimagined.


Urgent quest

Over the past two years, a sense of urgency has developed from Burgundy to Bordeaux to Champagne. Already first steps have been taken that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. In August 2018, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) introduced four new approved hybrid grapes: two red (Artaban and Vidoc) and two white (Floreal and Voltis). Initially grown at the government’s Bergheim experimental estate in Colmar, they are expected to produce the first wines for evaluation next year.

Three months after the INRA announcement, the National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO), which regulates the country’s wine appellations or AOCs, in November 2018 introduced a groundbreaking program allowing grape growers, through their regional organisations, to plant up to 5% of their vineyards in varieties not previously approved. Further, they will be allowed to use up to 10% of these new grapes in individual cuvées or blends, with an evaluation being held after ten years. “The change is fuelled by our desire to take into account environmental issues advocated by society and to adapt to climate change,” said INAO chairman Christian Paly.

In some ways, they are catching up with random experiments being done by impatient winegrowers searching for vines that are both disease-resistant and better suited to climate change. For example, the Ducourt family in the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux is making a red wine and a white wine using 100% hybrid grapes first bred in the 1990s – a mix of Vitis vinifera, the genetic family of grapes most grown worldwide for winemaking, and other Vitis varieties, using wild vines as one of their parents. These wines are already being sold internationally under the Ducourt Metissage label. “There is a European law currently that does not allow any other Vitis than vinifera to be used for AOC-level wines,” explains Jonathan Ducourt. “This is part of the reason why today we label them as Vin de France, the lowest ranking, by pedigree, of French wines.”

Jean-Marc Touzard, director of research for the INRA, says his agency was frustrated for a number of years because other agencies did not seem to share INRA’s sense of urgency. “The INAO was long seen as being conservative in its views,” Touzard says. “But since 2014 to 2015, we’ve found a change in their perceptions of the problems we face. Together, we are now building a partnership and have published our first joint document.”

There are reasons for France’s tardiness. The country is conservative and risk-averse. First, it asked, should it consider global warming an immediate threat, or as a longer-term problem best addressed by the next generation of winegrowers? Traditionalists also had difficulty wrapping their heads around changes in basic concepts – that Bordeaux might be too hot in some areas for growing Merlot or that growers in Burgundy, who remember not long ago needing to add sugar during fermentation, would have to worry about high levels of alcohol in Pinot Noir. And some recognised the threat but believed that by changing vineyard and winery practices they could buy time.

Second, there has been concern for more than a century about preserving the sanctity of French grapes. This was an understandable reaction of psychic, cultural and economic shock felt when the Phylloxera epidemic ripped through Europe in the late 1800s. Phylloxera made France somewhat paranoid and protective, like a parent can be with children after a sibling is lost. Although post-Phylloxera hybrids flourished, at one time covering more than a million acres in France, they were effectively outlawed by the 1970s because the wines they produced were deemed inferior. The INAO was founded in 1935 to set up strict up guidelines for each grape-producing region, including which grapes could be grown in each one.

While those rules are now being relaxed, there still exists an official registry of grape varieties that can be grown in France, including those for simple Vin de Pays or Vin de France. INRA’s new hybrids are included in this list. No wine can be made in France from vines not first approved and added to this registry.

The importance of the steps now being taken cannot be over-emphasised, because they have moved the playing field from experimental plots to commercial vineyards. According to Agnès Destrac-Irvine, the INAO representative in Bordeaux, the first new grapes not now approved in Bordeaux will be grown in the sub-appellations Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, the two basic classifications, and will be selected this summer. “Apart from those already authorised, the general assembly of the AOC will choose ten new varieties from the reds and ten new ones for the whites,” she says. But these cannot include hybrid varieties or the primary grapes grown in other major regions. For example, Bordeaux winegrowers will not be able to choose Syrah from Rhône or Pinot Noir from Burgundy. These new grapes can comprise up to 5% of a grower’s total vineyard space and up to 10% in a blend of an individual wine produced.

Revival of old grapes

A slightly different path is being taken in Burgundy, where about 50 varieties once grown in Burgundy were planted in an experimental plot in 2016-2017 by GEST, a terroir or vineyard research group. “Part of these varieties had been eliminated [historically] from the vineyards because they were too late to ripen or had too much acid,” says Floriane Vidalou, who is heading the study. “Today, these characteristics might be interesting regarding climate change. We will evaluate the grapes from next spring, and we will do this with the IFV – the French institute of the vine and of wine.”

Moët & Chandon cellar master Benoît Gouez points out that although Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are almost universally used to produce Champagne, there are four other approved varieties – Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Arbane – that are being re-examined and even replanted by some growers, although none are yet used by Moët.

Of course, there are alternate solutions in the vineyards – at least temporary ones – to problems caused by global warming. A quicker way in regions with blended wines is to alter the cépage – the mixture of grapes used in a blend. For example, Margaux and the southern Medoc have long planted more Merlot than elsewhere on the Left Bank. “But now, when we replant older vines, we are putting in more Cabernet Sauvignon and less Merlot,” says Armelle Cruse, owner of Château du Taillan, “because now Cabernet can get ripe, and it is less likely to be damaged by frost.”

Another response to climate change is to change where the grapes are being grown. For example, Burgundy winegrowers are taking advantage of elevated areas of the Côte d’Or which were considered unsuitable or marginally productive because they would not consistently ripen grapes. Now many growers consider these cooler areas, particularly Hautes-Côtes de Nuits and the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, as prime winegrowing property. INRA’s Touzard says: “I refer to this as the ‘soft nomad’ approach, where production moves to areas of a region not formerly used.”

Because of France’s classic status in international wine production and the former rigid structure of where grapes could be planted, the changes now under way there to address climate change appear the most dramatic. But Italy and Spain are also considering planting changes, while Germany has long been more liberal in introducing new grapes into the Rhein and Mosel from experimental plots.

Diversity needed

INRA and other organisations around the globe are also using climate change as an opportunity to address the growing ubiquity of just a few grape varieties. Elizabeth Wolkovich, associate professor in the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, took part in a 2013-14 INRA-sponsored study to examine how global warming could be accommodated by using the existing diversity of grape varieties. “In the study, we found that only 12 varieties make up 80% of the wine made in many countries,” Wolkovich says, “even though more than 1,000 different varieties are planted worldwide.” 

And, of course, global warming is also opening up new grape-growing areas. Brittany, where apples are the primary source of alcoholic beverages, is now producing wine. Early this year, the INAO nominated the Île-de-France, the area surrounding and including Paris, as a potential wine region, although Champagne is fighting recognition of this would-be neighbourhood rival. And, of course, there is the emergence of premium English winemaking.

But consumers and collectors worldwide are most interested in the fate of wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. In some ways, France is reliving with global warming a similar drama to that it faced with Phylloxera. It knows its legendary wines are going to change, becoming riper and more alcoholic (as is already happening) if nothing is done, or, hopefully, having slightly different but compatible flavours if new grapes are introduced into the mix. For now, it appears that the latter scenario will be the chosen path. “In each area, we have found partners who are very concerned and who want to find solutions,” Touzard says. “From only a few years ago, that’s a dramatic change.”

An American winegrower who is constantly experimenting with old and new grape varieties, and thus has been closely following France’s progress, finds a note of black humour in its dilemma. “There is a bit of irony in an AOC deciding what grapes will be best for its terroir – and needing only a decade or so of data to do it,” he says. “Aren’t the French the ones who have been selling the world on the idea that it takes centuries to match varieties and soils?” 

Roger Morris

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