Weird and wonderful newcomers could soon join familiar names like cabernet sauvignon and merlot on Bordeaux’s roster of grape varieties, writes Peter Ranscombe.
I’VE tasted the future, and it tastes… different.
Sitting on a stool in the Vignobles Ducourt tasting room – a cross between a school science lab and an Arthurian round table, watched over by an orange plastic crocodile, part of the company’s coat of arms – I was given a glimpse of what Bordeaux’s red and white wines could taste like in years to come.
Ducourt is a family-run winery that traces its roots back to 1858 and which has grown to encompass 14 chateaux covering 450 hectares and producing 2.8 million bottles of wine each year.
It’s a serious operation and a serious business – despite the day-glow crocodile giving me the evil eye as my haltering French failed me yet again.
And with that serious attitude toward business comes a similarly serious attitude towards the environment.
Since 2004, Ducourt’s vineyards have been certified as having “high environmental value” thanks to the company’s sustainability work.
Winemaker Jérémy Ducourt – whose father, Philippe, is the vineyard manager – wanted to go further.
While visiting friends in the South of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region in 2013, Jérémy came across disease-resistant grape varieties.
“I liked the taste, and they weren’t using any treatments at all in the vineyards,” he explained.
A year later, Ducourt planted its first experimental vineyards full of the hardy vines.
Cultivating plants that have a natural resistance to pests is not only good for the environment but good for business too; disease-resistant crops don’t need to be sprayed as often, cutting down on the amount being spent on treatments and the amount of harmful chemicals being released into the environment, as well as cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions thanks to fewer tractor journeys.
In an average season, Ducourt only needs to spray the experimental vineyards once or twice, meaning up to 90% less spray is used.
A hybrid approach
The varieties in question are hybrids, made by crossing well-known grape varieties with wild vines, which have higher natural resistance to diseases.
Wind the clock back to 1956 and 30% of the vines being grown in France were hybrids.
Yet the authorities wanted farmers to concentrate on growing higher-quality vines and so hybrids were excluded from the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system, the main regulations governing labelling, and so the plants were dug up in vast numbers.
It’s easy to understand why – most old-fashioned hybrid grapes produce an unattractive “foxy” aroma and flavour in the resulting wines, which consumers rarely enjoy.
Yet the modern-day hybrids found in Ducourt’s and other vineyards are a world away from those first-generation hybrids, which contained half the genetic material of Vitis vinifera – the common cultivated European grapevine – and half from wild vines.
Bordeaux’s current hybrids are fifth- and sixth-generation hybrids, crossed again and again so that 98% of their DNA is now Vitis vinifera, but with the important 2% addition of wild vines’ resistance to diseases such as powdery and downy mildew.
Ducourt planted cabernet jura, a crossing between cabernet sauvignon and wild vines, and sauvignac, a mix of sauvignon blanc, riesling and wild varieties.
Both were invented in 1991 in Switzerland; sauvignac looks set to be admitted to the AOC system, but cabernet jura faces an obstacle because it incorporates the name of an existing French wine-producing region.
With the two varieties currently sitting outside the main labelling regime, Ducourt bottles them as “Vin de France” or table wine under its specially created “Metissage” label, derived from the French word for “mixed”.
A broader bottle with lower, slopping shoulders and a wider neck is also used to distinguish Metissage on the shelf from the producer’s mainstream wines.
The taste test
So, what do the wines taste like?
The 2018 Metissage Rouge shared plenty of the traditional Claret aromas and flavours, from wet dog, woodsmoke and blackcurrant through to spicy notes on its finish.
There was plenty of acidity and lots of grip from the tannins, but it left me a bit cold, in the same way that supermarket Bordeaux often does.
More appealing to me was the 2017 Metissage Rouge, with a lifted floral element to its nose, alongside blackberry and cranberry, with sweet vanilla notes spun around lifter red fruit flavours of raspberry and redcurrant.
Yet the 2017 is a bit of an oddity – hail destroyed the first burst of flowers on the vine, and so the tiny 20 hectolitres of wine that Ducourt managed to produce that year came from a second, later flowering.
In contrast, the 2017 Metissage Blanc was probably the more Bordeaux Blanc-like of the two vintages, with sauvignon blanc-esque asparagus and green bean aromas and then that characteristic stalky and slightly green palate, with the asparagus and green bean joined by lemon.
Its acidity is crisp and there’s plenty of fruit flavour for balance, with a more savoury lemon rind element on the finish.
The nose on the 2018 Metissage Blanc was slightly more restrained, with the lemon notes outweighing the asparagus.
The palate was more focused around lemon sherbet, with plenty of concentrated flavours to balance its even fresher acidity.
While two vintages are not enough to draw long-lasting conclusions, cabernet jura and sauvignac certainly show enough promise to warrant further investigation, with flavour profiles that aren’t a million miles away from consumers’ current preferences for Bordeaux.
Looking beyond Bordeaux
While Ducourt is investigating the environmental – and business – benefits of hybrids, the wine authorities in Bordeaux last year gave winemakers and grape farmers further options for experimentation.
Permission was granted to plant seven grape varieties – four red and three white – which could help chateaux to adapt to climate change.
During the initial ten-year experiment, the new grapes can’t be planted in more than 5% of a vineyard nor make up more than 10% of the final blend; their names also can’t appear on the label.
The red line up consists of: arinarnoa, a crossing of cabernet sauvignon and tannat, the variety made famous further inland by the “black” wines of Cahors; castets, an ancient Bordeaux variety that could make a comeback; marselan, a cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache; and touriga nacional, one of the varieties used to make Port.
In the white corner, there’s: Spain’s albarino, also known as Portugal’s alvarinho; liliorila, a crossing of baroque and chardonnay; and petit manseng, a variety already on the books further south-west in Gascony.
While it will be at least five or six years before we’re able to taste the results of these experiments – once the vines are producing fruit that’s mature enough to turn into wine – it’s encouraging to see Bordeaux taking these first steps to adapt to climate change.
Peter Ranscombe offsets the carbon dioxide emissions from the international flights he takes for his wine trips by paying the Trees For Life charity to plant Scots Pines and other native species near his birthplace in the Highlands – find out more at http://bit.ly/SF_Trees