Some Detail on those New Bordeaux Varieties
This week saw a significant development in Bordeaux as the members of the Syndicat Viticole des AOC Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur voted in favour of seven new varieties being added to th elist of what they could plant in their vineyards. Choosing seven (mostly) warm-climate and (mostly) disease-resistant varieties shows the growers are clearly thinking ahead; climate change is making it increasingly difficult in Bordeaux to keep planting and replanting the same old varieties, especially Merlot which simply doesn’t cope well with warm vintages when the sugar levels (and thus the potential alcohol) can race ahead of the ripening of the phenolics in the skins and pips. Mildew has long been a problem in the region, but the 2018 vintage was greatly hampered by it. The growers are naturally looking for solutions.
I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look at the seven varieties, four of which are red, and three white.
Touriga Nacional: Undoubtedly the best known of the four reds, this is one of the classic grapes of Portugal. I am sure many would consider it a ‘noble’ variety, alongside the Cabernets, Chardonnay and so on. It is a major component in Port, as well as some of the best table wines of the Douro, Dão and other Portuguese regions. It is clearly a good candidate for planting in an increasingly warm Bordeaux.
Marselan: A grape I have encountered occasionally, usually in Southern Rhône and Languedoc blends. It is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, developed by Paul Truel at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in 1961. Initially rejected because of small berry size and low yields (the 1960s was an era when high-yielding varieties were still prized) it was not until 1990 it was added to the list of official French varieties.
Castets: An obscure variety discovered growing wild in southwest France in the late-19th century. It was propagated in the Bordeaux region by a man named Castets, hence the name. It has since disappeared from the region again, but is poised to return thanks to its reputed resistance to downy mildew (but not oidium, sadly).
Arinarnoa: Like Marselan, another cross, this time said to be Merlot x Petit Verdot, so it has an obvious Bordeaux connection. It was developed in 1956 by Pierre Marcel Durquéty in the region. However, later DNA analysis revealed the parents to be Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, so the scientists slipped up somewhere. Whatever its origins, it is late-ripening and disease-resistant, two strong features.
Alvarinho: Of the three whites, this is one of two well-known names. A Portuguese-Spanish cultivar, this is the variety of the Rías Baixas region in Spain. It is early-ripening, and not particularly disease-resistant, so I assume the syndicat has requested it be permitted for planting based purely on the high quality of its wines.
Petit Manseng: A high quality variety, and an obvious choice, being late-ripening and disease resistant. Widely planted in the Jurançon, alongside Gros Manseng (which is already planted on the Médoc at Château du Retout, vines pictured above) the wines can be excellent. Of note, it works in both dry and sweet styles.
Liliorila: An unusual variety, a cross again, this time between an obscure variety named Baroque and the better known Chardonnay. Developed by the INRA in Bordeaux in 1956, again by Pierre Marcel Durquéty, it has a reputation for flavoursome wines, albeit ones low in acidity.
To conclude, a couple of points. First, the vote still has to be approved by France’s Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (previously known as the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine and still often referred to by many, including me, as the INAO); this means, in reality, it is likely to be many years before these varieties are added to the list of those permissible in the cahier des charges, the rule book for these two appellations. Secondly, the syndicat only speaks for the Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur appellations, so don’t expect the owners of châteaux in more prestigious appellations to be rushing to plant these varieties. I don’t think Château Latour or Le Pin will be replacing Merlot with Marselan any time soon. Nevertheless, someone will plant these varieties (which will be limited to 5% of the vineyard but 10% of a blend), and it will be fascinating to see what effect it has on their wines.