WineInk: Bordeaux’s Heated Summer

Fires threaten wine region on the cusp of harvest season

Kelly J. Hayes
The architecturally stunning La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux celebrates the entire world of wine through artistic exhibitions and educational programs.
Courtesy CIVB

It has happened in California. And Oregon. The Aussies have faced it too.

Now a super-heated and dangerously dry summer has brought the threat of fire — and smoke — to one of the most significant wine regions in France, Bordeaux. Last week, on the virtual cusp of the start of the harvest season, a large fire reignited in the peat-laden, heavily treed forests to the south and west of some of the most well-known vineyards on earth.

In the Gironde region of Southwestern France, which is home to Bordeaux, July was the hottest — and driest — month in nearly 60 years. Temperatures rose as high as 104°.  In mid-July a pair of fires burned over 50,000 acres of the forest land not far from the vineyards of Bordeaux. This month one of those fires, known as the Landiras fire, kicked up once again, and smoke forced the closure of the main highway from the city of Bordeaux to the port of Bayonne. An international cadre of firefighters from Germany, Poland, Greece, Italy, Austria and Romania assisted over a thousand French firefighters in battling the blazes. While the vines have been spared, concerns about smoke taint, which has decimated vintages in other parts of the world in recent years, will remain until all the grapes are harvested.

Fortunately, temperatures were forecasted to be moderate this week, and there was a hope for at least some rain. But as the 2022 harvest gets underway in the next few days, likely before the traditional beginning of September due to the seasonal heat, there are still fears as to what the ultimate affects the changing climate will have on the wines. The French agricultural ministry already has warned that yields are expected to be below average this year due to the drought, hailstorms that hit the vineyards in June and a spring frost.

In the coming days, the harvest will begin in the Bordeaux wine region, France’s largest and one of the world’s most significant wine growing regions.
Courtesy CIVB

Wine has been made in Bordeaux since the Romans arrived in the first century. While civilizations have come and gone, wine has remained the constant, and it is arguable that Bordeaux is the most important wine region on earth. Bordeaux is the largest wine region in France and is home to around 6,000 producers and growers, or châteaux as they are called, making wines in 65 separate appellations, or distinctly designated regions. There are over 250,000 acres of planted vineyards. Compare that to the Napa Valley, which is home to around 450 producers and has just over 40,000 acres under vine.

While there are white wines produced in Bordeaux, mostly made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, including the famed sweet dessert wines from Sauternes, the vast majority of Bordeaux wines are reds. There are six different grapes that are used in producing red wines in Bordeaux. These are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and very occasionally Carménère. Most of the red wines are “Bordeaux Blends” of two or more of these grapes, with each bringing different flavor or texture components to the wines, much like spices bring to cuisine.

For wine aficionados, when a discussion of Bordeaux arises, much like politics, it usually begins with a preference for “left versus right.” This is because the vineyards in Bordeaux are divided by the estuary formed around the confluence of the Gironde and Dordogne rivers and are named the Left Bank and the Right Bank. Though there are distinct differences between the regions and the wines they produce, it is possible, even likely, for a person to equally like the wines from both sides. Imagine that.

In Bordeaux, red wines produced on the Left Bank of the Gironde, to the south and west of the rivers, generally are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the most widely planted vitas vinifera (wine grape) on Earth. Remember that Left Bank wines will be higher in tannins, which makes them a bit more age worthy. It also makes them a bit bolder and, well, challenging.

Petit Verdot is one of six red wine grapes used in Bordeaux Blends. It adds tannins, color and flavor to the wines in small amounts.
Courtesy CIVB

The wines from the Right Bank, on the other hand, are led in the blend by Merlot. This usually means that they are a bit softer and smoother. Merlot, by the way, is the most widely planted wine grape in France. While Right Bank wines can also be big and powerful, there is a bit more subtlety and approachability in a blend that is Merlot dominant. They generally are ready to drink a bit younger, as well.

There are no official rules that dictate the percentage of the variety that must be included, nor is “Bordeaux Blend” an official designation. Rather, it is a wine style that is used at the discretion of winemakers to produce red wines that best represent the Bordeaux varietals, soils and terroir of their specific region.

But it is not just the grapes used that make the wines from the two banks different. The soils on each side of the Gironde Estuary are markedly unique. On the Left Bank, the mighty rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne, have left gravelly soils, which stress the vines, making them work to get nutrients for the Cabernet planted there. Cross to the Right Bank, on the eastern and northern shores of the rivers, and the soils will largely consist of clay and limestone. They are less gravelly, imparting different characteristics from the Merlot that is prevalent there.

The Left Bank is also home to the five famed First Growth Wines (Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild) that were designated in the French Classification of 1855 as decreed by Napoleon III. These are the most prestigious wine houses in the world. While not First Growths, the Right Bank boasts Petrus, Château Cheval Blanc and the tiny — but widely lauded — Le Pin among its residents. Today all these wines sell for thousands of dollars.

While it may be easy to dismiss Bordeaux as being expensive and elitist, the fact is there are hundreds of wines from the region that are reasonably priced and accessible. Walk into almost any reputable wine shop, and you’ll be able to find a selection from either the Left or Right Bank for well under $30 a bottle. The problem is differentiating between them. Ask, and the retailer ought to be able to direct you through the wines they carry. Hopefully you’ll learn something.

Bordeaux, the city, is the heart of the French wine industry. Here, for generations, the business of wine has been consummated and the way in which wines are sold created. It is the site of the University of Bordeaux Institute of Vine and Wine Science, one of the top wine education schools on the planet and home to the architecturally stunning La Cité du Vin wine museum, which sits on the banks of the Garonne River.

As harvest begins, the desire is that the temperatures will mellow — a little, but not too much — rain shall fall, and the vintage will be splendid.

One can hope.

Sullivan Bottle
Courtesy photo

2019 J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Merlot

In 2018, Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla found what he had been seeking for more than a decade: a winery where he felt he could create a generational wine project. He bought the Sullivan Estate in the Rutherford AVA on the floor of the Napa Valley. There, he is embarking on a lifelong project to make some of the best wines in the world. Interestingly, instead of “Left Bank” Cabernet Sauvignon, which is so prevalent in the Rutherford region, this gem, named for the original founder of the vineyard, James O’Neil Sullivan, is a Bordeaux Blend led by 80% Merlot. A wine to be held for years to come, I luxuriated in its multiple layers of fruit, chocolate, toffee and yes, a hint of smoke. The depth and structure of the wine is a credit to the Sullivan Estate’s winemaker, Jeff Cole.


Sauternes dessert wines are produced from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes in the Graves region of Bordeaux.
Courtesy CIVB
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