by Martin Walker
The Bergerac wine region is currently being rocked and increasingly transformed by three separate revolutions. The first is the steady shift towards organic wines. The second is the quiet rebellion against the strictures of the appellation contrôlée system which regulate the varieties of grapes permitted. The third is climate change, which is accelerating the first two movements.
The experts at the Maison des Vins in Bergerac reckon that their region has now nosed ahead of Alsace as the most organic region in France, and the Saussignac district is poised to be the first all-organic appellation in the country. But there is a catch. Organic does not quite mean what it says. Under European Union rules, wines can be described as being made from organic grapes, which means grown without chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.
But the EU declines to probe the mysteries of the chai, the building in which the grape juice is fermented and transformed into wine, in part because of the controversy over the use of sulfites to stabilise the wine. In the United States, wines with up to 20 parts per million of sulfites may still be called organic under the definition of the National Organic Program of the Department of Agriculture, a ruling based on the argument that some wines are said to produce minute proportions of natural sulfites.
The various definitions of ‘organic’ can become arcane and I am more interested in the second phenomenon, the way Bergerac winemakers are increasingly turning to new grape varieties, even though it means their wine cannot be sold under Bergerac appellation.
This year so far, I have come across vineyards in the Bergerac where they are growing Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Ugni Blanc, Sangiovese, Grenache, Syrah, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Separavi. And they are making very good wine. But they have to call it either Vin de France or a Périgord wine, under the EU’s system of geographical protection, the IGP.
In the Bergerac, red wines are required to be made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Bordeaux also allows Petit Verdot and Carménère, better known as one of the main grapes in Chile. I only know of one vineyard that uses it, Château Clerc Milon.
But that queen of wine writers, Jancis Robinson, recently served a wine from the Médoc region of Bordeaux, famed for its grand crus. The Château du Retout Blanc from 2012 contained a wondrous variety of grapes. There were Gros Manseng from the Jurançon, Savagnin from the Jura near Switzerland, Mondeuse Blanche from Savoy (and very rare even there), all blended with Sauvignon Gris.
Call me a barbarian but my view is, the more the merrier. The only real test is the taste of the wine itself and its ability to last and to age well. I have drunk wonderful wines in various parts of the world made from many different grape varieties and I don’t think that a few experiments in the Bergerac region will damage our steadily-growing reputation for producing excellent wines at remarkably low prices.
And given the impact of climate change, we may have little choice but to expand our palette of grapes beyond the traditional big four. After all, the great wine of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whose vineyard French soldiers must salute as they pass it (on Napoleon’s orders) is allowed to contain up to thirteen grape varieties. So one or two more are unlikely to hurt us.
Others have already been doing this for years. The Sangiovese grape that is the backbone of Italy’s Chianti was transformed into the hugely expensive super-Tuscan wines by adding our own Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In the cool and rainy Washington state of North America, they added Syrah to the Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon mix to produce a splendid wine, much more full-bodied than anything they had made before.
In southern France, they have been experimenting with their core varieties of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (think Côtes du Rhône) by adding Cinsault, Carignan and Grenache Blanc.
There is even no reason not to mix red and white grapes. After all, champagne can contain Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. And the celestial wine of Côte-Rôtie is itself a blend of white Viognier and red Syrah, a fact that might come in useful one day in a pub quiz.
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.