Sun 13 Nov 2011
My recent sojourn in Bordeaux brought pleasures and revelations of many kinds — people, places, wine, food, history, tradition — but the most acute revelation, in fact the big story, occurred on the last night, when our small group had a tour, tasting and casual dinner at Domaine de Cantemerle — not to be confused with Chateau Cantemerle, the Fifth Growth Haut-Medoc estate in the commune of Macau. The proprietor of Domaine de Cantemerle is 73-year-old polymath Christian Mabille, who with his three sons in 1998 took over the property whose origins go back to the early 19th Century. Mabille, who seems as fluent in English as he wants to be, mainly spoke French when we visited the producer of Bordeaux Supérieur wines that lies about 20 kilometers north of the city of Bordeaux, on the right bank of the Dordogne river, in the commune of Saint-Gervais. (The domaine’s wines are available in New Jersey, California, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Virginia, Washington D.C., Missouri and Michigan.)
We were enjoying a meal of charcuterie and cheeses in one of the winery’s barrel rooms when Mabille, who is not immune to the twinkling eye and well-placed bon mot, dropped this bomb: “We are trying to anticipate climate change by bringing in chardonnay and other white varieties to replace sauvignon blanc, which is not going to be appropriate in a few more years.”
My colleagues and I scrambled for our notebooks. Chardonnay in Bordeaux? Sacre bleu!
I won’t belabor the point, but to recap briefly, grape-growing and wine-production in France are heavily regulated by the INAO through the AOC system. Each region where grapes are grown and wine is made, from the tiniest, most obscure appellation to the vast and geographically sweeping, is subject to rules that determine what grapes are entitled to be cultivated, how abundant the yields can be, whether certain vineyard and winery practices are allowed (irrigation, chaptalization) and how wines from specific areas are to be labeled. In fact, regulations were recently enacted that determine how many meters high vines can grow for some appellations, though there’s a five-year grace period to retool vineyards, as it were.
No rules exist that say that chardonnay grapes cannot be grown in Bordeaux and that wine cannot be made from those grapes; you just can’t label that wine as being from Bordeaux or anywhere within Bordeaux. The white grapes allowed in Bordeaux are sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle along with a few others like ugni blanc and colombard not used for top-flight wines. Chardonnay is not one of those permitted white grapes, primarily for reasons of practicality; chardonnay grapes to not perform at their best in Bordeaux’s maritime climate.
Mabille’s point is that as climate change continues to alter traditional weather-patterns and the gradual warming of the region becomes more acute, chardonnay and several other white varieties common to the South of France — Mabille is looking in Corbieres — will not only be suited to Bordeaux but necessary if the region is going to continue to produce white wine.
“We’ll only plant one or two hectares,” said Mabille — 2.57 to 5.14 acres — “just as an experiment, and this will happen in a year or two. Everything is in place. We have chosen the root stock and the vines, we have made cuttings, but the hail in September set us back.” (The domaine lost half of its crop of 2011 because of hail.) “Of course the wines will have to be made as Vin de France,” that is, they will not be allowed to carry any Bordeaux designation, a prospect that doesn’t bother Mabille because the domaine’s rosé is bottled as Vin de Table. “We wanted to give our rose a different character that’s not typical of Bordeaux rosés,” he said, “something a little darker, with a little more residual sugar. We didn’t want to confuse things administratively.”
Most startling was Mabille’s attitude toward the AOC structure: “It’s no longer a question of regulations,” he said, “but of client and customer confidence.” He goes further: “In this region, of course we have the traditional varieties, but you know carmenere has almost disappeared and petit verdot is no longer found in the northern Gironde except right here.” (Petit verdot makes up about one percent of the domaine’s 115 acres.) “Even the traditional producers and merchants have accepted that a part of the old grape varieties of Bordeaux are no longer present or viable.”
In fact, Mabille believes that the entire regulatory system needs rethinking.
“In 10 or 15 years, the AOC rules must be changed to allow more grape varieties,” he said, “or the whole thing is just going to blow to pieces. As I travel to other regions of the country and the world, I note that the French appellation system is very much appreciated and admired but not fully copied because it goes too far, it is too complicated. It’s essential to have rules, but they shouldn’t be extreme. I really support the changes to a simplified EU system that are coming in the future. It’s inevitable.”
Photo of Corie Brown, of zester.com, and FK frantically taking notes was shot by Fred Minnick. Many thanks to Jana Kravitz for her heroic translating efforts on this occasion.