All Change in Bordeaux

Ch MargauxWhisper it quietly but, in Bordeaux, that most traditional of winemaking areas, change is about to happen. For generations, the rules for the region’s red wines have insisted that only 6 grape varieties are allowed in the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the best-known plus Petit Verdot, Malbec (yes – the grape that Argentina claims as its own) and, if you can find any, Carmenère.   If you want to make your wine from anything else – Pinot Noir or Syrah, for example – that’s fine, but you can’t call it Bordeaux, it’s simply Table Wine (or Vin de France as it’s now known).

But last month, in a surprising turn around, the Bordeaux growers voted to allow 4 additional varieties: Touriga Nacional, a major component in Port and many other Portuguese wines, Marselan, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Grenache cross found in some southern French reds, Arinarnoa, another Cabernet Sauvignon cross, this time with Tannat (the Madiran variety) and finally, Castets, an old local variety that is virtually extinct.

Looking at the first 3 newcomers, the reason for the change quickly becomes obvious: all are from warmer areas and so are rather more heat- and drought-tolerant than the traditional varieties – qualities that have come massively to the fore in recent weeks where record temperatures have been seen across Europe.

Bordeaux’s whites are to get a makeover, too, with Portugal’s Alvarinho (grown in Spain as Albariño), south-west France’s lovely Petit Manseng and the obscure Liliorila, a Chardonnay cross, all being admitted, subject (as are the new red varieties) to the approval of France’s regulatory body, the INAO. If this is granted, official planting will be allowed from late next year, so, allowing 3 years for the vines to begin producing, the wines, under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur Appellations only (commune level wines, and Classified Growths such as Chateau Margaux, pictured above, remain unchanged) should start appearing on our shelves around 2024.

I look forward to tasting them.

What Kind of Chardonnay?

ChardonnayAsk many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’.  Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring.  So, why the extreme difference of views?

The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same. 

Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours.  A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach.  Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon. 

And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work.  Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want.  For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours.  And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.

Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through. 

Vire ClessePierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach.  Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length. 

I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes.  If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.