Can New Grapes Save the Wine Industry From Climate Change?

These new grapes—selected for their ability to thrive in hotter weather and be more resistant to disease—are seen as a solution to challenges faced by winemakers in an unpredictable climate.
August 31, 2019, 1:30 PM UTC

Heat waves, frost, rainstorms: As climate change continues to present challenges in vineyards, vintners across the globe are trying to figure out how to manage new and ever-changing conditions.

Bordeaux, France, long known as a highly traditional winemaking region and producer of a style of wine copied the world over, sent shock waves through the wine industry in June. The Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur Association—the body overseeing wineries in these appellations—announced it was permitting the use of seven new grape varieties in these wines, a move it hopes will be a saving grace for the region. It’s not the only winemaking area changing the makeup of its vineyards; intrepid producers elsewhere in the world are redefining their cuvées with new grape varieties as a way to address climate change.

The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) is a tier in the French wine classification system and stipulates regulations for quality control, such as permitted grape varieties and yields. If one were to think of the three levels in the system—Vin de France, Vin de Pays, and AOC—as a pyramid, AOC would be at the top. “Bordeaux AOC” on a label indicates a wine from the Bordeaux region that meets quality standards. Within this category, smaller subsets—such as Bordeaux Supérieur AOC (a special designation within the broader Bordeaux AOC that denotes a slightly higher quality)—also exist.

Bordeaux winemakers have several strategies for adapting to the realities of climate change—enological and agricultural practices, as well as plant material adaptation, among them.
Bordeaux Wine Council

Bordeaux Nouveau

Research into hardier grape varieties started back in 2008, but in 2017, members of the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur Association took an urgent look at environmental factors facing their vineyards. They identified four red varieties—Arinarnoa, Touriga Nacional, Castets, and Marselan—and three white grapes—Liliorila, Petit Manseng, and Alvarinho—as contenders for new plantings. The grapes’ various characteristics seem resilient in the face of viticultural challenges, explains Florian Reyne, general manager of Planète Bordeaux vineyards. Petit Manseng, for example, is resistant to gray rot, and Touriga Nacional is a late-ripening variety that won’t be harmed by spring frosts, a major problem in the area. “In 2017, we lost almost 80% of our production [to frost],” says Reyne.

Grape varieties are monitored and tested for resilience in adverse weather conditions.
Bordeaux Wine Council

The initiative still needs to pass through France’s National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO). But once approved, plantings will begin in the 2020–21 harvest season. There are stipulations: Only 5% of a vineyard is allowed to be planted with these new grapes, and a blend can consist of only 10% maximum of these varieties.

In the past, winemakers who experimented with varieties not approved under the AOC system could not label their wines as AOC wines, which devalued their product. By allowing these new grapes into the quality tier, winemakers in Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC are making a statement about how they believe the region will change in the coming years.

The nearly 50/50 split of new red and white varieties may redefine Bordeaux in other ways. Currently, “only 9% to 10% of the Bordeaux area is producing white wine,” Reyne says, but this ratio may change with the availability of new white options. This future-thinking protocol may also bring Bordeaux back to its roots: Castets, one of the approved red varieties, is a resurrected grape that was nearly extinct after the phylloxera crisis in the mid-1800s. But most important, “we want to plant varieties that are resistant to disease because we want to decrease the amount of chemical products we use,” Reyne adds.

Baskets filled during the 2012 harvest in the wine region of Franciacorta, Italy.
Fabio Cattabiani

Sparkling Future

While Bordeaux’s new missive is one of Europe’s largest—and most notable—to date, Franciacorta, a fairly young wine region in Italy, passed a smaller initiative two years ago as a way to fight global warming. The region is best known for sparkling wine, which requires high levels of acid in grapes for production. However, riper grapes—a result of hotter weather—mean less acidity.

In the 1990s, the region began working with a local university to preserve indigenous grapes. After two major heat waves in the mid-2000s, the trade organization Consorzio Franciacorta took a closer look at Erbamat, a grape the consortium thought would work well in its blends. In 2017, Erbamat was approved for use. Like Bordeaux, there are restrictions: Only 10% can be used in a blend.

The 2012 harvest in Franciacorta, Italy.
Fabio Cattabiani

While winemakers remain hopeful that Erbamat will prove its potential, the future is unknown. “That is the question,” says Silvano Brescianini, president of the consortium. “I don’t have the answer. But it’s a variety that ripens six to eight weeks later than Chardonnay. This grape has very good acidity and lower alcohol, which will be interesting in the blends.”

Barrels at Muré winery in Rouffach, France.
Muré winery

Tradition Meets Innovation

Alsace, in northern France and considered one of the country’s coolest regions, isn’t immune to the climatic seesaw, either. While rising temperatures have had some unexpected benefits—such as the reliable ripening of Riesling and Pinot Noir—a few winemakers are looking at these pluses as a warning sign.

At the end of the 1980s, René Muré, 11th-generation winemaker at Muré winery, began changing the composition of its vineyard Clos St.-Landelin; Pinot Blanc and, eventually, Pinot Gris were removed because they grew overripe too quickly and lost their delicate freshness.

The rising ripeness and alcohol levels in the Pinot Noir, though, were a bigger call to action. “My father had the idea, if global warming is continuing at the same speed as what we have seen those last 30 years, maybe in 50 years we won’t be able to make Pinot Noir anymore,” says Thomas Muré, who, along with his sister Véronique, makes up the 12th generation of winemakers. “So we wanted to experiment on a red wine variety with a slower maturation cycle.”

Barrels from the 2012 harvest at Muré winery.
Muré Winery

They eventually landed on Syrah, noting their clay and sandstone soils were similar to those found in the northern Rhône Valley. The vines are still young, only eight years old, but, says Thomas Muré: “2018 was the first vintage where we began to see the terroir aromas.” For now, production is tiny—just 0.08 hectares (0.19 acres)—but the experiment spurred interest in the region. Jean Boxler of Albert Boxler wines in Alsace recently put in a few test vines, and a small community of interested winemakers are coming together to consider the long-term ramifications of global warming.

While vintners in areas like Alsace and Bordeaux pride themselves on tradition, they hope it’s innovation that will help them retain their regions’ reputation as some of the greatest in the world.

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