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Bordeaux Post-Modern
Diverse 19th-century vines for a 21st-century climate

by Joshua Greene
March 25, 2019

Pre-phylloxera vines along the Dordogne River near Fronsac at the Château de la Vieille Chapelle.

Frédéric Mallier grows biodynamic bouchalès, his vines planted sometime before phylloxera hit Bordeaux. He makes the wine in a shed attached to the 11th-century stone chapel he and his Bordelaise wife, Fabienne, run as an inn. The Vieille Chapelle 2016 Bouchalès is a wild, medieval wine, its blackness harmonizing in minor chords of leesy funk, like the dark tones of a Belgian gueuze.

Of his 52 acres on a flood plain several feet below a levee, on the south bank of the Dordogne River, 22 are in production, including a small parcel of vines he believes to be from the 19th century. He says the flood irrigation, during winter, would have liquidated the phylloxera louse when it was busy reproducing, leaving the vines to thrive to this day.

Trained to what he calls cordon de royat, thick vines that wander up to 12 or 15 feet along the trellis, these vines look nothing like their trim cousins in most contemporary Bordeaux vineyards. He believes they are planted on their own roots, and has determined “the vines are all mixed together, something that was not happening after phylloxera.”

The IFV (Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin) identified three vines for him in 2009, using DNA analysis—one was merlot, two were bouchalès—at which point he went to his neighbor, a gentleman in his eighties, and asked if he knew what bouchalès is. His neighbor hadn’t heard of it. “Two years ago, I met an old man who remembered his father having some bouchalès,” Mallier tells me, as if confirming that it is, in fact, a legitimate Bordeaux variety.

Later, he went back to the IFV and asked them to identify all of the 400 vines in his ancient plot. “They told me, either you’re not rich enough, or we won’t do it,” he recalls. Instead, Louis Bordenave, an ampelographer who had been associated with the INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronimique), offered to map the vineyard. He and a colleague completed an assessment of the vines in 2014, determining that 65 percent of them were bouchalès, the balance ten other varieties: merlot, mancin des palus, côt, carmenère, castet, peloursin, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and two hybrids they could not identify. Mallier used the map in 2016 to harvest and vinify all the bouchalès separately, for a single-variety bottling, but it’s the blend of all 11 varieties, drawn from the center of the fermenting tank, that shows the lovely raspberry richness and freshness that has stayed with me since my September visit.

Even as a tank sample, its fermentation not yet finished, the wine has the haunting echoes of the past, the same resonance that lingers in the stone floors and peaked ceiling of the adjacent chapel. Back in the 11th century, when the Chapelle Saint Marie de l’Ile was built, there was likely a small village here for shipping wines out on the Dordogne River. Today, it’s far from any village, and a distance northwest from Fronsac, the closest notable wine appellation. That remoteness, combined with the floodwaters, may be key to the vines having survived the last century.

Frédéric Mallier tends a parcel of pre-phylloxera vines. Frédéric Mallier tends a parcel of pre-phylloxera vines.
There are some pre-phylloxera vines that have survived in less remote areas of Bordeaux, such as the plot farmed by Laurence Alias and Pascale Choime in Arsac, bounded on the south by a small stream and on the east by the vines of Château Palmer. The parcel provides the fruit for Closeries des Moussis’s Haut-Médoc Baragane, a black, tight-fisted Bordeaux with silky tannins in 2014. The vines show more of themselves when the wine has a little bottle age, such as the 2011, a delicate wine aged in five-year-old barrels—so the tannins, according to Alias, are all from the grapes. Those tannins are dark and floral, their silkiness carrying an equally dark fruit flavor, something like black raspberries as they shift from tartness toward ripeness.

Out of the 12 rows of vines, 0.86 of an acre, Alias estimates that the original vines represent 20 percent of what is now growing here. “Most of the people who tended the vines worked through marcottage,” she says, bending a shoot toward the ground. When a vine would die off, they would allow the neighboring vine to grow a long shoot; they would bury the end of it in place, where it would take root and eventually form an independent plant. “We don’t plow this vineyard because the root system is fairly superficial. There is a carpet of roots underneath—they are so intertwined, I consider it as one organism.”

Alias and Choime have rented these vines since 2009, and farm them without chemical pesticides or herbicides. She says the vines have survived on their own roots as the ground was regularly inundated with water. “One of the techniques to continue to plant vines without rootstock is to flood them,” she says. And even though she knows there is phylloxera present in the soil, the vines have rarely been flooded since drainage was put in during the 1960s. “The last time it flooded was in 2011, when there were extreme high tides,” she says, and yet the vines have not been touched by the louse. “It’s as if the vines have developed a natural defense mechanism.”

Laurence Alias (above) and Pascale Choime, at Closeries des Moussis, produce Baragane from a mixed planting of pre-phylloxera vines in the Haut-Médoc village of Arsac. Laurence Alias (above) and Pascale Choime, at Closeries des Moussis, produce Baragane from a mixed planting of pre-phylloxera vines in the Haut-Médoc village of Arsac.
The vines caught the attention of Thomas Duroux, the CEO of Château Palmer. “We had heard that Laurence and her partner had very old vines with pre-phylloxera plants,” he says, “and we asked if we could go and have a look.” Duroux has been investigating the diversity in Bordeaux vineyards since he joined Palmer in 2004, when he met Louis Bordenave, the ampelographer, who helped him select varieties for the château’s white wine. “Talking with Louis, we discussed the fact that before phylloxera, we had in Bordeaux a lot of grape varieties, much more than today. With phylloxera, mildew and powdery mildew, a lot of them were abandoned.”

Though Bordenave is now retired, Duroux asked him to visit the vines Alias and Choime were farming. They have since begun a project to study three of them, looking for vines that might thrive in the changing climate. Farming Palmer’s vineyards under biodynamics since 2014 (Demeter certified in 2017), Duroux is looking for creative solutions to disease pressures, particularly mildew. “In 2018, we had the most difficult time with mildew pressure, and lost a significant part of the crop,” he reports. “I had a plot of old merlot and a block of petit verdot side by side; the merlot was devastated by the mildew, the petit verdot not at all. If we are able to identify varieties that have a strong link with the territory, it will probably be an answer for the future.

Thierry Bos grows carmenère, malbec and petit verdot at Château de Bouillerot in Entre-deux-Mers. Thierry Bos grows carmenère, malbec and petit verdot at Château de Bouillerot in Entre-deux-Mers.
To find those with the most potential, he’s looking to the past, researching vineyards like his neighbors’, as well as tasting grapes at the collection of old grape varieties at the INRA. “What we want is a link to the territory—not just to work with any varieties from anywhere,” he says. Though the appellation rules don’t allow it for now, Duroux believes that the Bordeaux vineyards eventually will have a more diverse selection of varieties planted. “I’m a believer in diversity,” he says. “In a forest, you have a lot of different plants, and together they may be more resistant to disease pressure than one plant filling an entire field.”

As it turns out, the planting regulations may soon be changing. According to Florian Reyne of Planète Bordeaux (the Syndicat des AOC Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur), the syndicate has been working with the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) since 2016 to develop a process for experimentation within the AOC. Planète Bordeaux is developing a protocol to benchmark varieties of Vitis vinifera, to determine which might be best suited to adapting to a changing climate; preference may well be given to local varieties still extant in Bordeaux’s now rare pre-phylloxera parcels. Planète Bordeaux will present a list of ten varieties for discussion and approval at its general assembly in June of this year. “If everything goes well,” Reyne says, “the first experimental plot will be planted next year.”

Meanwhile, growers have been working with authorized varieties to ameliorate some of the challenges with widely planted vines, like merlot: A variety with a short cycle and a narrow harvest window, its grapes regularly spike to potential alcohol levels above 15 percent. Growers are finding that some local vines may, in fact, allow them to sustain more restrained levels of alcohol in their blends. Marc Milhade grows carmenère at Châteaux Boutisse and Recougne in St-Emilion. Of the 118 acres of carmenère in Bordeaux, he says, he has three, which represents one of the larger holdings. It started as a project of his father’s in 2000, to consider vines that might be more adapted to the changing climate. “Carmenère was one solution to merlot reaching 14 to 15 degrees in every vintage. It never gets over 12 degrees, so we could balance the alcohol level.”

Thomas Duroux and his team at Château Palmer are exploring diverse local varieties that may prove more resistant to disease in a changing climate. Thomas Duroux and his team at Château Palmer are exploring diverse local varieties that may prove more resistant to disease in a changing climate.
His father found what he believed to be pre-phylloxera vines at Château Trianon, and worked with a nursery to reproduce a selection and graft some vines to study at Recougne in 2001. His family planted more in 2005, as well as a small parcel at Boutisse in 2007. Marc has found the vine to be more vigorous than merlot, and challenging to ripen in 2012 and 2013. “I don’t have any conclusion about what to do with the carmenère,” he tells me, though he has developed a market for a small production of 100 percent carmenère, around 680 cases a year, which he sells in the gourmet shops of Russia. “They are looking for original wines,” he says. “They are looking for something rare.” Then, as he pours a glass of his 2014, he warns me, “It is not at all in the Bordeaux style.” Instead, it’s a refreshingly brisk red with no presence of oak, just spicy scents and sunny, violet tones to the fruit.

“I think these varieties are the future of Bordeaux,” says Thierry Bos, who grows carmenère, malbec and petit verdot at Château de Bouillerot in Gironde-sur-Dropt, a windy district east of Cadillac and just north of the Garonne river in Entre-Deux-Mers. “I pick all three after cabernet. Carmenère reaches a maximum of 12 to 13 degrees alcohol.”

Even so, it’s trouble. “It’s very sensitive to coulure,” says Bos. “And we say, ‘It would rot by fear.’ A hundred years ago, when there was still a lot of carmenère in Bordeaux, the climate was very different; it would rot before it matured. With our climate conditions now, we always manage to bring it to ripen. With malbec, we have more consistency, but carmenère gives spicy notes you cannot find in other varieties in Bordeaux. When it’s fermenting in the vats, it smells of black pepper. In a blend, with the fruit of malbec and the peppery spice of carmenère, the wine gives the impression of a grape variety from somewhere other than Bordeaux—more like a syrah from the northern Rhône.”

In 2015, when all of his other reds came in at 13.5 percent alcohol, his Cep d’Anton blend of carmenère, petit verdot and malbec held to 13 percent, and still manages to deliver lush sweetness of fruit and a creamy richness to the texture. His 2016, from a hot vintage, reaching 13.5 percent alcohol, is bright with black-pepper spice and beautiful herbal scents that last, bringing some austerity to the supple tannins. The wine is fat enough to serve with duck, which may be the subliminal identifying factor that marks it as a Bordeaux of the future.

top photo courtesy of Château de la Vieille Chapelle

This feature appears in the print edition of April 2019.
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Tags  Bordeaux