How Does Climate Change Affect the Bordeaux Wine Region

For centuries wine producers have walked lovingly along their rows of vines, inspecting their fruit. This traditional walk has given producers an idea of when they should think about harvesting and gives them an idea of the wine they are about to make. It allows them to muse as they gaze upon their pastoral idyll on questions of profound importance: are the grapes ripe enough? What will the weather conditions be like over the next weeks? How healthy are the plants?…

Unfortunately, this image of bucolic perfection is changing. Thanks to climate change, this annual ritual is now just as likely to deliver bad news as much as good. Today, winemakers are just as likely to find grapes that are ripening too fast under the blistering sun. Or grapes that have turned into raisins, thereby running the risk that any wine they are turned into will be syrupy. If getting the harvest date right has been important to producers in the past, today, it is crucial.

How climate change affects grape growing in Bordeaux

As a Britisher, I am guilty of having sometimes flippantly cheered global warming. A few warmer days in our rainy, cold summers are more than welcome, but these come at a cost. Intense drought, frequent storms, unforeseen heat waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans are destroying people’s (winemakers’) livelihoods, taking whole communities with them. As climate change worsens, dangerous weather events are becoming more frequent and in some cases, severe. The unprecedented 2003 European summer heat wave, which saw record highs of 41°C in Bordeaux, was devastating to wine production and resulted in a 10-year low. France suffered roughly one-third of this, with agricultural losses of around €13 billion. 

And there was more to come. 2011 saw thermometers rise to 39°C for the first time, 2016 saw 40°C, and by 2019, 41°C had almost become the norm. Unsurprisingly, this is not good news for grapes.  Very hot days during the flowering season speeds up grape ripening, which results in a longer growing season, lower productivity and lower-quality grapes. In the vineyards, this translates to a shorter vine growing cycle with earlier ripening and harvesting (approx. 20 days less over the past 30 years), an increase in hydric stress, and changes in yield, alcohol, acidity and aromas in the finished wine.

Ironically, higher temperatures were initially thought of as a good thing for Bordeaux wine. Changes in the region’s climate in the second half of the twentieth century were generally favourable for high-quality wine production, resulting in some behemoth vintages such as the sensational 1975, 1978, 1983, 1988, 1990 and 1995, to name just a few. But, this would soon spiral into too much, causing much consternation for winemakers. If you think that the 2022  harvest was a full two weeks earlier than in the middle ages, with the highest jump in temperatures ebbing in the last 30 years, you understand what this might mean for France’s famous wine region. 

New grape varieties approved for Bordeaux 

Traditionally, just six red (and eight white) grape varieties are allowed to be grown in Bordeaux to make up the iconic Bordeaux Blend. These are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and occasionally Carménère. Blending is perhaps Bordeaux’s signature, and some appellations specify a minimum and maximum of certain varieties to carry the famous Bordeaux stamp of approval. For example, to be called a “Côtes de Bordeaux”, wines can include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère in the blend, but the total of Petit Verdot and Carmenère must be less than 10%. The differing combinations of grapes are, more often than not, a well-kept secret, which brings unique characteristics to each estate’s wine.

Yet, as climate change continues to affect the French wine regions, the Bordeaux wines we’ve come to love have had to evolve. This evolution began in 2019 when France’s Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) made the revolutionary decision to allow seven new grape varieties to be grown on Bordeaux’s hallowed soil. This milestone was heralded by the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) as “the culmination of over a decade of research by wine scientists and growers of Bordeaux to address the impact of climate change through highly innovative, eco-friendly measures.” 

So what are these new superhero grapes that have been brought in to save the day? The seven varieties include Marselan and Portuguese favourite Touriga Nacional, plus the lesser-known Castets and Arinarnoa, which is a cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon. For white wines, the new grapes are Alvarinho, Petit Manseng and Liliorila, which were born in the 1950s following a crossing of Baroque and Chardonnay. All of the new suggestions were specifically chosen for their potential to flourish even in the inhospitable conditions caused by global warming.

But that’s not all. New grapes might be the way forward, but Bordeaux has had to do something to protect its current wine varieties. Therefore, implementing environmentally friendly changes in production that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions has become a goal. So far, this has proved successful; in the five years from when the pact was made (in 2008), greenhouse gas emissions had already been reduced by 9%. The CIVB built on the success of this reduction of carbon footprint by setting a new goal – reducing the figure by a further 20% through energy savings, water reduction and renewable energy. 

Environmental vineyard certifications

This unprecedented move by the CIVB has naturally encouraged many of the 5,600 or so estates to look for new environmental certification. The most popular is of course biodynamic wine, where estates are not allowed to use chemicals on their land and must fertilise using only natural methods.

Organic and biodynamic certifications

If you are unfamiliar biodynamic wines are wines made using organic farming processes – such as composting to fertilise, planting various herbs to act as natural pesticides and using soil supplements to ensure ecological self-sufficiency. Planting and harvesting are done according to an astrological calendar. While it may seem like a new trend, biodynamic farming has been around since 1924, when Rudolf Steiner out layed the benefits of treating the vineyard as “one living organism.” Steiner thought that the fields, plants, animals, soil, and even insects should be nurtured to support the healthy lifespan of the terroir as a whole. This approach holds great appeal to some winemakers, notably those with deep pockets who can afford to take a few chances.

One of biodynamics great champions is Pomerol’s Alain Moueix, who defends departure from traditional winemaking at his estates Château Fonroque (fully biodynamic since 2002) and  Château Mazeyres (fully biodynamic since 2012). “Biodynamics makes it possible to make more singular wines that speak better of the place, the vintage, the winemaker. It’s based on a delicate observation of nature to follow its spontaneous shifts. It allows freedom from technical constraints to forge an intimate relationship with the terroir. Is this not also tradition?”

That is not to say that going biodynamic or even organic is without challenges. While Bordeaux is known for its big-hitting famous wines, the vast majority of producers in the region are small-scale enterprises working with tiny margins. Reduced yields and higher costs mean smaller, family-run estates are reluctant to embrace the change. Higher production costs cannot be reflected in the sales price, yet going organic costs the producer upwards of 0.50€ per bottle extra. This additional cost may not be an issue for some – in the case of a Grand Cru wine, this works as the quality and reputation far outweighs the quantity, but for an entry-level wine it is impossible to reconcile financial investments with the potential risk.  In the estates where volume is more sensitive, growers simply don’t have the financial capacity to convert to biodynamics unless they receive incentives from the French government. 

The future of Bordeaux’s traditions in the looming shadow of climate change is concerning more and more winemakers. Today, it is not surprising to see horses and sheep nibbling at weeds in some of Bordeaux’s greatest vineyards. Grasses and wildflowers planted between the rows of vines encourage butterflies and bees to pollinate and fertilise the vines, ensuring that no pesticides are used. 

Chateaux such as Smith Haut-Lafitte and Chateau Montrose have embraced the biodynamic movement, and let’s hope others will soon follow suit.

If you want to know more about biodynamic wine, we have outlined the process – and, more importantly for investors, the ageing appeal in our detailed blog.

Best Biodynamic Wines for Investing

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 2010 & 2013

You can only expect good things from Château Smith Haut Lafitte. Not only does it boast an 800-year history, but it has also benefited from a massive makeover in the past 10 years and includes the omnipresent Michel Rolland as a wine consultant. Things were already on the up with the 2005 vintage, but owners Daniel and Florence Cathiard – both ex-Olympic skiers – were not content with better. They wanted excellent, and by golly, they got it. The Graves vineyard has produced some superb wine in recent years, but none better than the 2010 and 2013 vintages. The former scored 95/100 on aggregate scores, including a 98/100 from Robert Parker, who suggests cellaring until 2045. 2013 scored lower – just 90/100 on aggregate, but with a drinking window until 2025, it is ripe for discovery. 

Chateau Montrose 2009

Château Montrose is a relative baby in St. Estèphe. Production only began in 1815, yet the wine was already so good by 1855 that it was given a Second Growth status in the famous classification. Together with the “elite cores” (a geological term for the complex layering of Montrose’s terroir) of the soil, plus the estate’s faultless history, Château Montrose is worth considering. Add the careful management of owners Martin and Olivier Bouygues to this mix, and you have a recipe for excellence. After the purchase of the estate in 2006, the Bouygues brothers invested a massive 55 million in the renovation, hiring key personnel (including the directors of Mouton Rothschild and Haut Brion) and making environmentally conscious upgrades. Evidence of the renovation can be seen in the perfect 100 point 2009, a vintage which was named by auction house Christie’s as one of the “Five best Bordeaux vintages to own and collect”. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *