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Bordeaux to explore non-Bordeaux varieties? Could happen as soon as this month

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Zinfandel from Bordeaux! Sacre bleu! Yet it could be a reality someday. So could a Bordeaux Chardonnay, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and several other grape varieties, if the heretofore hidebound INAO (National Institute of Appellations), the formal body that regulates such things, decides at the end of this month to allow vignerons to plant grape varieties that have long been illegal in Bordeaux. That’s according to this report from Decanter.

Only 14 red and white grape varieties are now permitted to be grown in Bordeaux, under INAO laws dating to 1935. Given France’s history of bureaucratically-mandated viticulture (who could forget Phillip the Bold’s 1395 banishment of “disloyal Gamay” from Burgundy?), if the authorities permit an expansion of the varietal palate, it would be a major departure from centuries of established practice.

It all stems from the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux, the producer organization for AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, who asked the INAO for permission to plant the non-native grapes. “Bordeaux wines are blend-wines. We wish to test new varietals to know if they can enhance the complexity of our wines,” a spokesman from the Syndicat was quoted as saying on the website, VinoWire. The deal, apparently (if INAO allows it to go ahead), is for 4 estates to vinify the new wines over the next 5 years. Then, “if the results are satisfactory,” reports the blog Bordeaux Undiscovered, “the use of the new grapes will be permitted in the Bordeaux regulations…up to 10% in the blend.” No explanation is provided as to how the results will be determined to be satisfactory or not.

Predictably, the trial balloon is raising some hackles among traditionalists, who don’t want to see change come to Bordeaux. Nick Stephens, who writes Bordeaux Undiscovered, calls it “half-baked,” and wonders if the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux is “attempting to change the character of Bordeaux wines to that of their New World cousins?” On that VinoWire website, a guest contributor and wine writer, Hervé Lalau, said it was “pathetic to hear a spokesman of what used to pass as the wine Mecca speaking of ‘enhancing Bordeaux’s complexity’. Does it lack complexity so much that even Bordeaux people confess it?” Then Lalau asked the big question: “This could be like Pandora’s box. If the INAO accepts these new grapes in Bordeaux, then how could it refuse Cabernet in Burgundy, Sauvignon in Châteauneuf and Sémillon in Sancerre?”

Well, it sounds like Bordeaux is becoming California-ized! I personally don’t see what the problem is with Bordeaux trying out new varieties and blends. Bordeaux has to compete in the international wine market just like everybody else. If they can make better, more interesting wines by tinkering with new varieties, great. Here in California, wineries such as Buoncristiani, Swanson, L’Aventure and Treana have achieved stunning success with Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blends that blow your sox off. Who says that Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur — not the greatest wines to begin with — can’t be better by adding some exotic varieties to the mix?

P.S. Here’s the URL for Tom Wark’s American Wine Blog Awards. If you like my blog, you might consider nominating it in one of these categories, or all three:

- Best writing wine blog
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  1. Thomas Matthews says:

    And how about some context? The current line-up of “Bordeaux varieties” — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot — didn’t stablize until the late 19th century, following phylloxera. In the 18th century, the philosopher/vinter Montesquieu counted several dozen different varities in his vineyard in the Graves.

  2. Tom, you’re quite right. Penning-Rowsell writes (in The Wines of Bordeaux): “Curiously enough the cepage of even the first-growth estates in the Medoc remains unclear until the nineteenth century…No doubt in the early days there was a melange of various varieties, only some of which would now be described as ‘noble.’” Oddly, in browsing through the book (an all-time favorite of mine), I saw that Doisy-Daene, the Sauternes chateau, at the time of publication (1969) was putting 20% Riesling into the blend!

  3. Let us not forget the English inspired (and often preferred) “Hermitaged” Clarets. Today we might call them “Parkerized” ?

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    The opposition to freedom in grape variety and blend comes from the establishment who fear that a “lesser” vineyard on soils unsuited to traditional Bordelaise varieties might prosper and compete successfully with them by producing a better tasting wine. This is a traditional French business practice. Protect your business from innovation with government bureaucracy.

    The other night went to dinner party, all guests were Napa vintners. I took two bottles of a 1982 Bordeaux second growth. Out of curiosity I checked on auction prices for the wine. At auction, the wine was selling for the same price as two of the dinner guest’s current release Cabernets. You wonder when (or if ever) the French to catch on?

  5. Ray: Exactly!

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