In November, the grapes have long been harvested, the leaves are now soft yellow and auburn, dark, and the neat rows between the vines have transformed into muddy paths dotted with puddles. But as the heavy purple clouds opened up to reveal brilliant blue sunshine, and the stonewalls of the castle shone with the morning’s rain, it felt like a perfect time to visit Bordeaux.
Full disclosure, I did not choose to visit Bordeaux in November because it is the best time to travel there. The vendange, or harvest is past, and the grapes have already been pressed and barreled. It had been raining heavily for the past several weeks, with floods getting severe enough to cancel and reroute trains.
Separately, workers from the public French train company, SNCF, are striking because of the government’s recent pension reform. Fewer trains are running daily, schedules are in flux, and there is a national transit strike planned for Dec. 5 (happy birthday to me!).
So when my roommate and I booked our tickets for Bordeaux, we were not exactly sure how smooth the trip would be. Going on a Wednesday, skipping classes, taking a 6:45 a.m. departing train and an 11:15 p.m. return train was already chaotic enough without strikes and floods. But we were on assignment. This was for journalism (school).
We went to Bordeaux to record material for our new podcast project. I don’t want to reveal too many details (I’ll share a link when the podcast is up), but this episode focuses on recent changes to certain regulations for wine production in Bordeaux. In France, vineyards are heavily regulated. To receive an Appellation d'Origine Controlée (AOC) or Appellation d'Origine Protégée designation, vineyards can only produce wines in certain areas with certain grape varieties. A wine’s name usually connotes its region of origin — the terroir. A French Pinot Noir will be a Bourgogne. Or Champagne only from the Champagne region, bien sûr.
A red Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur wine, for example, is mainly Merlot with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or a few other authorized grape varieties. All of the grapes must be grown in the Bordeaux region in southwest France and the wine must be produced there as well. Today, however, climate change is challenging many of these regulations.
To adapt to climate change, the National Institute for Origin and Quality (INAO) took a nearly unprecedented step and altered some of its strict laws. In Bordeaux, INAO authorized the use of seven new types of grapes in Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines — all Mediterranean varieties better adapted to hot temperatures.
Bordeaux is the first region that received permission from the INAO to include new grape varieties in its AOC wines. The authorization is not a total abandonment of centuries of viticulture traditions in France. The new grape varieties can only comprise 10 percent of the total blend of a wine and only 5 percent of a vineyard’s total land. A red Bordeaux will still be a full-bodied Merlot, but it might be a little fruiter with a new variety, such as the Spanish Touriga Nacional. And, of course, no French varieties of grapes can be grown in new places outside of their protected terroir if a vineyard wants to maintain its AOC label. You will not start suddenly seeing Syrah wines in Bourgogne. That would be too far; at least not for a few decades.
In Bordeaux, my friend and I spent the day at the Chateau Malromé vineyard, which will be one of the first to start incorporating Touriga Nacional grapes into the Bordeaux Supérieur wines, beginning the next growing season, in 2020.
Chateau Malromé was originally made famous by the famous French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose family owned the castle and who died there at the age of 37. Although the property has been a vineyard for centuries, it was not until the new owner took over in 2013 that Chateau Malromé came back to life.
Now, the vineyard is experimenting with various strategies to combat climate change and improve the quality and yield of grapes. Aside from introducing Touriga Nacional grapes (replacing old Malbec vines), the vineyard is testing out new tilling techniques and working with the foliage on the property to ensure that the soil is fertile and that the vines receive enough sun protection now that summers are hotter.
Though I’m normally a Côte-du-Rhône or Bourgogne type of girl, I tasted some excellent Bordeaux Supérieur at Malromé. Not too heavy, either. A miraculous break from the rain, a little nature and lunch with some fine wine were just what I needed during this dark, dreary November. Plus, I’m a mountain girl. I prefer Bordeaux when it’s 40 degrees and raining rather than 106 degrees and sunny, as was the case during the summer heat wave.