Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Bordeaux winegrowers are experimenting with new grape varieties to prepare for a time when Merlot grapes will no longer produce the right flavour due to climate change.
‘The Taste of Bordeaux Is Going to Change.’ Under Threat From Climate Change and Coronavirus, French Winemakers Try Experimenting
BY MÉLISSA GODIN MAY 22, 2020 6:36 AM EDT
In the hills outside of Bordeaux, where lines of vineyards create geometric patterns across the landscape, winemakers have been carefully growing and harvesting a dark blue grape variety for centuries. Merlot, with its soft, velvety plum flavor, is one of the world’s most popular red wines.
But Merlot as we know it is on the verge of extinction. Climate change—which has increased average global temperatures, along with the frequency and severity of droughts, heat waves and other erratic weather patterns—is changing the flavor of French wines. Warmer temperatures cause grapes to ripen faster, resulting in more sugar in the grape. That ultimately affects the alcohol content, acidity level and the color of wine. While scientists do not know how long current varieties of Merlot will be able to last under changing conditions, they have said that Merlot will be the first victim of climate changeamongst grape varieties in the region.
But in Bordeaux, the wine capital of the world, experimental laboratories have emerged, dedicated to finding new flavors of wine that are adaptable to the changing climate. French winemakers are experimenting with vines from other parts of the world, from Italian Sangiovese to Greek Assyrtiko, that can withstand higher temperatures, to see if they can survive in Bordeaux. Their hope is to find a new flavor that can replace the region’s iconic Merlot, which makes up 60% of vineyards in Bordeaux.
“Some wines will not be able to remain,” says Jean-Marc Touzard, the director of l’INRA, a French public research institute focussed on agriculture. “Merlot is struggling in the face of climate change.”
COVID-19 has put further pressure on winemakers. Since the outbreak hit France, wine sales have rapidly declined, wine fairs and festivals have been canceled and exports have been severely affected. In the first two weeks of lockdown, some winemakers have reported a 50-70% loss in revenue. “It’s a catastrophe for our industry,” says Masse, adding that the economic ramifications of COVID-19 will make it difficult for winemakers to plan for climate change. “It affects people’s budget to experiment.” Agricultural unions in France have already estimated a shortfall of roughly 200,000 seasonal migrant workers because of COVID-19, further hampering production.
How could we all have gotten it so wrong for all this time? It is now clear we have to shut down Western Civilisation so rich people can continue to enjoy the French wine flavours they are accustomed to. Buying wine made from Merlot grapes grown a few hundred miles North of current growing regions just wouldn’t be the same.