But this celebration may be short-lived, the researchers added. “Harvest is taking place earlier in the season as a result of increased temperatures … However, when ripeness is reached too early … grape composition is unbalanced and wine quality is jeopardized.”
Thanks to Bordeaux’s warmer summers, Reyrel says he has seen Château de Pressac’s wines improve in recent years, but he concedes that eventually he’ll have to adapt. His short-term solution: blending more cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc into the wine. But with 75 percent of his vineyards planted with merlot, his production volume is sure to be squeezed more the warmer it gets.
Thomas Gomes, meanwhile, isn’t waiting around for the laws to change to get a jump on the climate. The 33-year-old winemaker, who farms five acres under the name Domaine Populus Alba, has already planted grenache and Syrah—wine grapes that are prohibited from being used in a Bordeaux wine. When I sat down with him and his girlfriend in July, he told me that while the rain was ruining his grenache, his Syrah was on track to make him another vintage of “colorful wine, very spicy and very fruity.” (He plans on trying out carignan, nero d’Avola, and tempranillo soon.)
Syrah may not be the answer to Bordeaux’s climate woes, Gomes says, but someone has to start experimenting with new varieties. He’s personally inspired by the more heat-tolerant varieties found in France’s southern Rhône Valley. Warmer and drier than Bordeaux, it’s a good proxy for where Bordeaux is likely headed, and Gomes is betting he can learn a lot from the Rhône vineyards—how the hardier grapes grow, when they need to be harvested, and what kind of wine they ultimately make. “As the climate gets hotter, I think for Bordeaux these varieties will mature better because they’ll be less stressed,” he said. “We can adapt to these varieties. The wine will be better with these grapes. I am sure.”
That sort of flexibility will be key to the survival—and evolution—of France’s most famous wines, and it’s something that David-Beaulieu, of Château Coutet, recognizes readily.
Back at his fermentation room, he pointed out his 100-year-old wooden wine press with its weathered staves, gears, and belts. “That press works perfectly,” he declared, suggesting that wine making is at least as much craft—even art—as it is science. After all, David-Beaulieu noted, even though he contracts with a laboratory to test the chemical composition of his grapes around harvest, it is he alone who determines exactly what time to harvest.
Sooner or later, making those kinds of decisions with the planet’s shifting climate in mind—and adapting creatively—will become obligatory for any winemaker in Bordeaux who wants to continue in the business.
That’s something Gomes has taken to heart as well—though because he’s making use of those rogue grapes, he cannot label his Bordeaux-made wine as “Bordeaux AOC,” the high-end, official classification reserved for wines that adhere to Bordeaux’s strictest controls. At best, he can simply call it a “vin de France.”
But Gomes doesn’t see that as a slap in the face so much as a badge of honor.
“The large, famous châteaux will benefit from the experimentation of the small producers,” he said. “It’s always the little winegrowers that will push innovation.”