Bordeaux - wine production

November 17, 2017


16 Nov – 21km


 Half marathon number one took place in Bordeaux, France. Starting in the centre, I navigated my way through the narrow cobbled streets and past Bordeaux’s collection of beautiful historic buildings, as friends Georgie and Lachie rode beside me. The route would have exhibited a perfect snapshot of 18th-century France, had we not had to cut through the parking lot of an ill-placed IKEA. We ran through the countryside where harvest is now well over and the region is entering dormancy season. For fear of using the usual assortment of Autumn clichés commonly found in 6th form creative writing assignments, I will refrain from describing the landscape in detail except to say the rows of vines doused in vibrant yellow, red and burnt orange made for an amazing backdrop. After we finished, we sat in one of the many centre squares enjoying a red Merlot-blend from Pessac, a wine that may not be around for too much longer if the warming pattern across the region continues.


The celebration was probably slightly premature considering I have 18 more half marathons to go. I had actually vowed to give up alcohol for the duration of this trip after scrolling through Kayla Itsines’ Instagram account on the train from Beziers to Bordeaux. If I have to pull out halfway through this month, no doubt I will wish I had stuck to Kayla’s advice and spent less time consuming red wine and cheese and a little more time drinking green smoothies and #livelaughlove-ing.  


Studies show that, until recently, the warmer climate has generally had a positive impact on wine production in Europe. Gavin Quinney, owner of Chateau Baudac located some 15 miles from the city centre, agrees with this conclusion, noting that higher temperatures have resulted in an increased strength of wine and faster ripening times. Quinney said that 20 years ago, growers were using osmosis processes to try and increase the alcohol content in their wines, but that’s not the case anymore. Notwithstanding this, climatologist Gregory Jones has asserted that global warming throughout the 1990s has resulted in many European regions having reached their optimal (or near-optimal) temperature for wine production. If temperatures increase much further, the result will be overripe fruit aromas and tastes, low acidity, and higher sugar and alcohol content. A sweet wine with a high alcohol content is perfect if you are an Otago student heading to a BYO at Tokyo Gardens, however it’s not ideal for growers under strain to supply high quality wine unique to the area in which it’s produced.


Quinney told me that over 80% of the grapes grown in the Bordeaux region are varieties of red, and nearly three-quarters of this is Merlot. He sees the production of good quality Merlot-dominated blends as one of the biggest risks as the planet warms because the alcohol content of the Merlot currently being produced is already high (as opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon, which is usually lower). If warming continues, and the alcohol content in Merlot continues to rise, growers could be in trouble. When I asked about the possibility of growers adapting and producing different types of wine, he said possibly - however the restrictions currently in place that dictate what grape varieties may be grown and where would have to be relaxed.


Warming isn’t the only concern that Bordeaux-growers are facing. Due to an unusually mild March and a frosty April, 2017 is set to go down in the record books as one of the poorest wine grape harvests since 1945. The area hasn’t seen frost damage like this since 1991, and many are attributing this freak event to climate change. According to Quinney, overall production in the region is down a staggering 40 – 50% and some growers and chateaux lost 100% of this year’s crop. Quinney himself lost around half. Contemplating the effects on chateaux owners from losing an entire year’s worth of grapes, Quinney said that although many will struggle, everyone always seems to “muddle through”. They’ve  seen a lot of consolidation of chateaux in recent years, with larger vineyards acquiring smaller ones, and he expects this trend to continue in the future.


Many articles that I’ve read on this issue have alleged that further increases in temperature will result in growers having no choice but to look to relocate production north and uphill to higher ground. Some even describe how the amount of land used for viticulture in the UK has increased by 148% in the last decade and forecast that this trend will only continue as the French purchase plots of land in the UK to safeguard their future; however, the notion that growers will relocate if they can’t continue producing premium wine in France may not ring true in Bordeaux. Firstly, Bordeaux oozes prestige. There’s a sense of community here, one that’s founded on a history of culture and tradition in an area renowned for producing some of the world’s top wines. Relocating means not only having the money to start again, it can also mean losing this reputation. When I mentioned the recent claims that winemakers were considering relocating to the cooler climate in the UK, Quinney bluntly replied that “no one would move production to the UK, no one is that stupid.” If people had to stop producing wine in the Bordeaux region, they’re likely to diversify and “become architects or bankers or something.” Quinney also made the point that if growers are burnt by climate change to the extent that their livelihoods are destroyed, they’re unlikely to want to simply start again somewhere else.


But beer drinkers aren’t off the hook either.  In 2015, Belgium beer company, Cantillon - considered by many craft beer connoisseurs to be one of the world’s great breweries - was forced to stop annual production of its spontaneously fermenting lambic beers, due to increasing air temperatures. Cantillon’s traditional method is to leave the brews fermenting outside in the cool October air. In Autumn 2015, the night-time temperatures in October were too warm to allow this and the brewery was forced to temporarily halt production. Van Roy, whose great grandfather founded the brewery in 1900, told the Guardian that 50 years ago, his grandfather brewed from mid-October through to May. He said that he has never seen this in his life - the brewing period is only getting shorter.


If climate change is left unchecked and warming continues, we may be able to ponder the reasons for our inaction over a 2200 vintage from the Antarctic region.






Massive thanks to G and Lachie for the amazing support, organisation and stories to get me through xx












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