by Martin Walker
Donald Trump may no longer believe in climate change but after this long, hot summer, I suspect that most of us in this part of the world are now convinced that it’s really happening, even if we differ on the degree to which human activity is responsible. After all, anyone who visits Lascaux and the other painted caves knows that this region went through dramatic climate swings ten and twenty thousand years ago.
But more and more, I hear from winemakers in the Bergerac that they are worried what this means for them. Most of the concerns focus on the future viability of Merlot, an iconic grape in the Bergerac and in the Bordeaux region. All wines in these two appellations are required to include Merlot. Château Pétrus in the Pomerol, one of the great wines, is made entirely from this grape.
The problem is that Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, and the longer the grapes stay on the vine the richer they are in sugar and thus in alcohol. We are now seeing Bergerac wines that used to have twelve or thirteen per cent alcohol rising to fifteen per cent and higher, like the renowned cuvée Adagio from Château des Eyssards.
So pick the Merlot earlier, you might say. But the Merlot needs the extra time for the various phenols and tannins to develop. Since they give the wine its classic character and indeed its identity this won’t do.
Some excellent winemakers, like Laurent de Bosredon of Château Bélingard, think the problem can be managed by careful stewardship in the vineyard, for example by keeping a good leaf cover on top of the grapes. His collection of gold medals from the Paris show testifies to his expertise. His prestige Ortus, made of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and kept eighteen months in oak barrels, is a very fine red wine indeed, at 20.50 euros a bottle.
Other winemakers are trying different techniques, such as removing the white pebbles of chalk from the ground between the rows of vines, since they reflect the sun’s rays upwards into the grapes. Others, like that excellent winemaker Hugh Ryman at Château de la Jaubertie, are phasing out their Merlots altogether. Several are experimenting with new grape varieties. Le Clos du Breuil near Issigeac has imported Saperavi grapes from Georgia in the Caucasus. Others are trying Tempranillo from Spain, Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola from Italy as well as the Syrah and Grenache that are grown closer to the Mediterranean coast.
At Bordeaux University’s Institute of Vine and Wine Science, Professor Kees van Leeuwen has over the past seven years planted 52 varieties of different grapes to see which look most promising for the future of the region. Within three years, he hopes to have five grape varieties that could secure the future of the Bordeaux wine industry, with its annual sales of two billion euros.
Other scientists have been conducting their own experiments. Pascal Chatonnet, an oenologist, was commissioned by an environmental group to assess what higher temperatures might mean. He planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Tunisia and found the resulting wine ‘syrupy and smelling of over-ripe fruit.’
Inevitably, politics will play a role because of the strict regulations of the appellation contrôlée system, which requires certain varieties of grapes to be planted. For Bordeaux and Bergerac that means Merlot – a grape that accounts for more than half the harvest of our neighbours in the Bordeaux region. Changing those rules will be complicated. And some lively arguments can be expected because as of this year the greater heat may actually be helping the production of great wines.
Traditionally, the great vintages have come in years of hot, dry summers, and every winemaker will tell you that the vines need to be stressed to produce their best wines. In St Emilion, it is common to hear winemakers boast that these days they are producing better and more voluptuous wines, with gentle tannins. And winemakers tend to live one year and one vintage at a time. Change will not come easily.
“Change will certainly come,” says Professor van Leeuwen. “It’s a disaster if you don’t adapt.”
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.