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No more Merlot: France’s vineyards under threat

  • Written by  Hazel Southam
  • Published in Climate
No more Merlot: France’s vineyards under threat Mbonaparte
18 Feb
Record temperatures are having an unpalatable effect on France’s wine growing regions. Hazel Southam reports on how one much-loved variety in particular is under threat of extinction

‘Merlot’, reads the wooden sign ahead of row-upon-row of vines at Chateau La Tour Carnet in France’s Medoc region. Merlot is one of the key grapes of the Bordeaux wines, of which Medoc is a part, so currently the sign seems unnecessary and also ubiquitous. It is not only impossible to think of the region’s wine without it, it is also illegal – at least in vintner terms.

The varieties of grapes allowed in Bordeaux wines are stipulated nationally. Any deviation from the list is simply not Bordeaux wine. But there’s a problem. Climate change is putting the Merlot grape under threat and with it the future for this famous wine-growing region.

carnet Bernard Magrez 2Could Merlot be running out? (Image: Carnet Bernard Magrez)

Last year, France experienced its second hottest summer on record, with temperatures regularly topping the high 30s. But it wasn’t just the summer that was hot. According to the UK Met Office, 2015 was the hottest overall year on record, a result of man-made global warming combined with a strong El Nino effect in the Pacific. Temperatures were 1°C over pre-industrial levels. In Biarritz, a two-hour drive south from Bordeaux, thermometers showed 28°C in November. The average is normally just 12°C.

Experts are saying that this poses a problem for French vintners, specifically those who grow the Merlot grape, which is more sensitive to heat than the robust Cabernet Sauvignon. Three years ago, Lee Hannah, a scientist at Conservation International published a paper on the prospects for the wine industry globally if climate change continued unabated. He and his co-authors predicted that as a result of warming and drying, some 85 per cent of the current wine-growing land in the European Mediterranean – including much of the French wine country – might no longer support wine production as soon as 2050.

Last summer, Agnes Destrac, a researcher with France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, issued a further warning specifically related to the Merlot grape. ‘You have to keep in mind the limits of the grape,’ she said. ‘We’re not going to keep Merlot no matter what.’

A few years ago this would have been heresy to the French winemaking establishment. Now it is fuelling research into how the wine industry might adapt to climate change. Some of that research is happening at Chateau La Tour Carnet. Two years ago, wine magnate, Bernard Magrez planted 52 varieties of vine on one of the vineyard’s slopes. 2016 will be his first harvest and will afford cellar master, Jonathan Martinet, the chance to experiment.

‘It’s exciting, but a lot of work,’ says Martinet looking out at the seemingly-innocuous stretch of land that could hold the future to the Bordeaux wine industry.

Here’s the key: Bordeaux wines are made from a blend of grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec for the red wines. For white, tradition dictates Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadele. Merlot comprises some 60 per cent of the vines grown in the region. Its content in each bottle varies – but by law it must be in each bottle. At La Tour Carnet, Martinet offers me a sample of the vineyard’s Haut-Medoc 2011. This is 57 per cent Merlot. He takes the threat to the grape extremely seriously.

carnet Bernard Magrez 3Bernard Magrez (left) and Joel Robuchon (right)

Bernard Magrez is arguably the French equivalent of Richard Branson. At his chateaux (he owns three) there are pictures of him with political leaders and famous actors.

He recently opened a restaurant with Joel Robuchon. Of all French chefs, Robuchon has won the most Michelin stars. After just one year, the restaurant had already scooped its first Michelin star and is set for more this year. Its wine cellar is the equivalent of a gallery, with 259 top wines including some that top 1,000 Euros per bottle.

At 79, Magrez takes his role in the French wine industry to heart. ‘Making wine is an art,’ he says. ‘I feel that I am a custodian of the wines of Bordeaux.’

Climate change, he says, ‘is a true problem. We are working hand-in-hand with the French government on this. That is why I am planting different grape varieties, to see how they do. Protecting the vineyards is a key motif for us.’

shutterstock 222207217 freeprod33Vineyards in the Bordeaux region (Image: freeprod33)

The region has a wine-growing heritage that goes back to the Roman era and Magrez and his winemakers can talk with ease about the last 800 years. Classification was introduced in 1855. Then, between 1863 and 1875 the Phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards causing a blight that shattered the industry.

New rootstock had to be bought in from the United States to restart ancient vineyards. Local varieties were grafted on to the rootstock, which was not susceptible to the beetle. So despite the heavy mantle of tradition in this region, adaptation is actually the norm.

‘We will still be drinking great wines here in 800 years time,’ says Magrez confidently, ‘but I just don’t know about Merlot.’

Magrez is planning for a future that he cannot see, but one in which climate change will play a key part; planning for a different type of Bordeaux wine; for vineyards that will look the same, but which will in fact be very different.

shutterstock 117702112 kabandMerlot grapes face an uncertain future (Image: kaband)

Experts say that, the warming of the atmosphere that has already taken place has already pushed the vines in France’s Languedoc-Rousillon, Provence and Rhone regions to the limit of good grape production.

If climate change can be held at under 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the theory goes, winemakers like Magrez will be able to adapt by changing their pruning procedures, replacing vines with more heat-tolerant varieties and tweaking the production process. Grapes may have to be picked earlier.

But, if the environment warms above 3°C then the wine-making industry, the country’s largest exporter after the space industry, would be facing real problems with many grapes not able to withstand the higher temperatures.

Magrez, for one, is determined to fight the threat. He gets just three or four hours sleep a night and the rest of the time is to be found in his office at Chateau Pape Clement. ‘Adaptation is important,’ he says. ‘We have to adapt to the situation. I will never give up. I have the will to do anything to succeed.’

Just 400 miles away in Paris, France’s President Francois Hollande is among those that pushed through the COP21 climate change agreement. Hollande called the agreement ‘a decisive moment in history’. It remains to be seen if temperature rises can be curtailed at under 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as the agreement certifies. If they can, then Magrez, with all his planning may help to develop a future for Bordeaux wines. If not, all the planning in the world won’t help.

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