April is en primeur season, when the wine world reviews the taste of Bordeaux from the previous summer. This year, the Environmental Journalists’ Association grasped the opportunity to go viral by claiming it was offering people the chance to try a “2050” vintage.
Creating a 2050 wine
Obviously, the issue here is not about possible changes in palate preferences, but about climate change. That is: rising temperatures and drought. The formula first involved taking some Cabernet-Sauvignon and some Merlot (Bordeaux’s two major grape varieties) from Languedoc and Tunisia. Then, the wines were made in Bordeaux by precisely following production specifications for the appellation. Pascal Chatonnet, consultant winemaker and owner of Château l'Archange in Saint-Emilion, agreed to join the initiative and produce 400 bottles of wine.
The resultant wine shows ultra ripe stewed fruit aromas but is a little short and dry on the finish. It is not unpleasant but is nevertheless quite different from the current Bordeaux character. Acidity, which at the moment counterbalances the fruit by adding a feeling of freshness, is no longer there. Neither are there any fine tannins. Alcohol, on the other hand, is restrained and the wine’s ABV of 13.5% is on a par with a lot of present-day Bordeaux. The grapes simply have to be harvested a little earlier, before they are too sweet, though on the flipside the skin may not be completely ripe.
Preparing for the future
As you can imagine, Bordeaux winegrowers have started to take action. Christophe Château of the Bordeaux wine marketing board (CIVB) explains that trials are underway, some of them involving varieties other than Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot. The dual objective is to offer a bulwark to climate change, while reducing spraying. It is probably also about not taking the consumer too much by surprise.
Pascal Chatonnet believes that Bordeaux's minority grape varieties could gain traction. Specifications already permit the use of Cabernet franc, Côt (or Malbec), Carmenère and Petit Verdot. However, these varieties respond to climate change in very different ways. Merlot is the appealing grape variety behind many contemporary labels, but reacts quite badly to high temperatures. It is therefore in danger of seeing its popularity amongst growers wane. But Petit Verdot, which often accounts for around one percent of present-day blends, will probably grow. After all, the variety has been described as the grape that is only really ripe once every ten years. Similarly, Carmenère, although native to Bordeaux, produces very good results much farther south, in Veneto for example. When it lacks heat, its aromas are on the herbal side, but not when the temperature rises.
Choices will have to be made without too much delay. Planting a vineyard is a long-term commitment. Some Châteaux have reportedly already started to plant a little more Petit Verdot and Carmenère, two varieties hitherto almost anecdotal that could soon experience their hour of glory.
By Alain Echalier