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An Infernal Problem: Do The Bordeaux Forest Fires Warn Of Climate Change’s Apocalyptic Effect On Fine Wine?

Lewis Chester DipWSET investigates, and speaks with Loic Pasquet – whose Liber Pater vineyards were nearly destroyed by the blaze.

Waking up to the glorious vista of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California, on the morning of 12th July, I checked my WhatsApp messages with double espresso in hand, hoping to enjoy a carefree day. My good friend, winemaker Loic Pasquet of Liber Pater, had sent me 20 messages overnight – which I knew meant trouble.

Included were shocking photographs and videos of destruction caused by an inferno of forest fires which had reached within a few hundred yards from his vines while consuming 14,000 hectares of nearby forest. Within a few hours, numerous articles began to appear, including one in British wine magazine, Decanter, headlined ‘Fires Near Bordeaux: Liber Pater Vineyard Evacuated’.

Thankfully, Loic, his wife Alona and their two little girls were safe. The vineyards miraculously escaped the fire – helped in part by Loic and his team using their tractor to destroy the grass, separating the fires from the vineyard. The big fear for Loic was that his precious 5.3 hectares of original rootstock – native grape varietals including those that formed the basis of the Bordeaux First Growths at the time of the famed 1855 Bordeaux Classification – would be destroyed.

The fires by the Liber Pater vineyard raged into the night 

Liber Pater’s raison-d’être is that it is the only Bordeaux estate to make wines that claim to recreate the taste of the ‘real Bordeaux’: namely from original rootstock – native varietals such as Petite Vidure, Tarnay, Grosse Vidure, Saint Macaire, Pardotte, Castet and Prunelard that have long-since disappeared to be replaced with varietals that are not indigenous to Bordeaux, such as Merlot grafted onto American rootstocks. For this reason, and the fact that he makes less than a thousand bottles of Liber Pater in a good vintage, a 75cl bottle of his Grand Vin is the world’s most expensive wine on release: €30,000 for the 2015 Liber Pater.

Fires have reaped destruction in many wine regions over the last five years, notably in California where I was able to witness the altered landscape in Napa Valley on a recent trip. Spain has experienced the worst forest fires in decades, losing 90,000 hectares across the country this year, including numerous vineyard sites. The recent fires in Bordeaux are just one part of a distinct and inevitable change in the climate caused by global warming.

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Once it was controversial to even suggest that global warming existed. But no longer. Perhaps because the grape vine is the most sensitive of all fruit plants, it has borne the brunt of climate change in a manner which has clarified and settled the debate once and for all. Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne – the three most noble French wine regions – have experienced a preponderance of early vintages since the turn of the century that defy all prior records. No longer is it a rarity in the Northern Hemisphere to see the harvest beginning before 1st September.

Loic and his team used a tractor to destroy a vast area of grass, helping prevent the fire from reaching his vineyard. 

Although a warming climate can benefit certain wine regions and vintages which historically had difficulty ripening grapes every year, the downside of climate change is enormous. Early flowering leads to an increased risk of frost, which can destroy both the vintage and, more worryingly, the vines themselves. Fire is not only a risk to the vines, but will often leave a ‘smoke taint’ that makes the wines unsaleable.

Hail risk has become endemic. Lower yielding vintages – in essence, much less wine being made – has become the new norm, particularly in Burgundy, which seems to have been impacted by climate change more than most other fine wine regions in Europe. The end result is not only less wine, but a change of style in the end product – the ‘hot vintage’ wines that used to be rarities are now almost annual events. As a result, we are witnessing a sharp increase in fine wine prices, both at the producer-level and in the secondary market, as fine wine lovers and collectors fight over the minute quantities of the very best wines.

It might surprise a few readers to know that climate change is not a new issue for the wine industry, especially in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Towards the end of the period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’, a series of devastatingly cold winters over a 20-year period, from the 1690s through to 1709, drastically reduced yields and wine supply across Europe.

A chilling reminder of the effects of smoke on organic matter: ‘smoke taint’ makes wine unsaleable. 

One unintended fatal consequence of making wines during this period was the addition of ‘litharge’ (lead oxide) to sweeten and mask the acidity of wines made from unripe grapes during these unusually bad vintages. Historians believe this form of lead poisoning led to very high mortality rates, especially among the continent’s heaviest wine drinkers – a most plentiful group – who were often observed to suffer an excruciating death. The period culminated in perhaps the most dramatic climatic event to have ever hit the European wine industry, the ‘Great Frost’ of 1709 which destroyed the majority of the vines in the entirety of Bordeaux and Burgundy, leading to the ‘Great Replanting’.

Hot vintages were rarities, and often celebrated events in the history of wine. The wondrous ‘Opimius’ vintage of Falernum in 121 BC (Opimius being the Roman consul in that year), which was still being sought-after by wealthy Romans over a century later, has garnered the reputation of being the most ‘faked’ wine in the history of fine wine. The legendary vintage of 1540 produced a German wine, Steinwein of Würzburg – where the weather was so hot that the Rhine river dried up completely – which somehow survived intact and was very much still alive and enjoyable when tasted by a group of wine critics in 1961 at 421 years of age.

Although not due to climate change, the impact of a tiny aphid (Phylloxera) that was introduced into Europe from pre-Civil War America in the mid-19th Century – with the first vineyard ravaged in the Southern Rhône region of France in 1863 – devastated the European wine industry over a period of fifty years. Indeed, it is due to Phylloxera that the indigenous own rootstock grape varietals that Loic Pasquet holds dear were ripped out of the vineyards and replaced with new varietals. It is no exaggeration to say that Phylloxera was an existential threat to winegrowing in Europe, which was only saved by the pioneering efforts of Charles Valentine Riley and J. E. Planchon in grafting American rootstocks (resistant to Phylloxera) onto European Vitis vinifera vines.

With this history in mind, and the fact that the wine industry has successfully (if, painfully) always managed to adapt to the great climatic and other dangers thrown its way, I asked Loic Pasquet of Liber Pater – a man literally on the front lines of this modern existential threat – his views on the latest tragedy to hit the wine world. As always to be expected with Loic, he has some striking and controversial views.

Plumes of smoke warned Loic and his team of impending danger 

Did the fires cause any damage to the vineyard?
Thankfully, no damage for the time being. The fire started within 500 metres from the vineyard. It was a crazy, stressful and tiring 12 days.

Will the wines be impacted this year?
Smoke taint – which causes the wine to smell of smoke – is always a possibility. We will need to wait and see. The region has suffered from drought over many years, both during winter and summer. This is almost certainly the reason why we had the fires in the first place. The forests are totally dry.

How has climate change impacted Liber Pater? 
Perhaps because our vines are ungrafted [or “Francs de Pied”], we have had less impact from global warming than other Bordeaux estates. We’ve put humus and biochar [carbonised organic material] in the soils for many years to protect the vitality of the vineyard. This has helped create a reserve of water for the vines. We also have excellent grape varietals that do not need a lot of water on deep, dry gravels, such as Petite Vidure rather than Merlot.

We don’t have any Merlot. In my opinion, Merlot is finished in Bordeaux – for the first time this year, in Pomerol [on the Right Bank], the appellation regulator allowed estates to add water to the vines to stop them from dying. Merlot was a good varietal to help get high scores from wine critics, but it is a terrible varietal to make fine wine during a period of global warming.

What are you doing to mitigate your risk to climate change?
We’ve had global warming in Europe before – during the period from around 950 to around 1200 AD. Of course, today’s global warming is totally different and due to human factors. But the previous one did result in the climate warming by more than 2.5 degrees centigrade. Our native vines have the genetic response to adapt to this. As long as we respect the soil, go back to replanting ungrafted vines, on soils where Phylloxera cannot spread, and use the best varietals on good soil, we can resist the worse consequences of global warming and continue to make fine wine.

It will always be possible to make wine – if you look at the New World, for example, if you irrigate, you can make wine irrespective of how hot it is; but you cannot make fine wine. We must save our European heritage and not make wines which are a varietal ‘soup’. Fine wines must always express the terroir.

The fire damaged area of Bordeaux, adjacent to Liber Pater 

Where do you see the future for you and the Bordeaux region?
On the Right Bank, in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, it will be difficult because they will have to irrigate. And a number of estates started irrigating this year in Pomerol. The future has to be about having vineyards with fine deep soils which have their own natural water reserves, like we have at Liber Pater.

On the Left Bank, the future is brighter because the soils are generally deeper. We need to be allowed to use native varietals [these are currently banned under the appellation rules], as these are genetically programmed to resist the worse consequences of global warming. The message is clear: put the best varietals in the best soils. We need to ensure the soils have lots of humus and biochar. If we do this, I’m confident we can resist the worse consequences of climate change up to two degrees centigrade of warming; after that, it is impossible to know for sure.

Maybe we’ll have to make wines in other places. That’s why we bought a vineyard in Greece, in the Cyclades Islands, because the temperature is better and the wine heritage is strong. For the Bordelais, the government and regulators need to quickly change the laws, or all will be lost. If global warming moves more quickly than the government has the capacity to move, then we will lose. The consequences of global warming are not just in higher temperatures. Frost has become a massive issue for us, and the laws do not currently allow us to cover the vines with nets to protect against it. Bordeaux now loses a lot of production every year from frost.

You formed an association, Les Francs de Pied: can you tell us about it?
Les Francs de Pied promotes the European heritage and culture of wine growing from producers who use ungrafted vines. We support all growers who use Francs de Pied throughout the world. We know today that wine made from Francs de Pied creates fine wine with more purity, precision and higher quality tannins. This is our heritage. We must grow grape varietals from where they originated. This is the holy grail of viticulture. All our members will use a bottle label that guarantees that the wines have been made from Francs de Pied. This guarantees that the consumer is drinking 8,000 years of European wine heritage. We want to be the UNESCO of wine.

Have your fellow members of Les Francs de Pied been similarly impacted by climate change? 
Today, all Francs de Pied winemakers say the same thing. Francs de Pied vines have better resistance – this is shown by the fact that the harvest dates are not dramatically getting earlier compared with grafted vines. The size of the grape and the health of the vine is all perfect with Francs de Pied. The vines are less stressed because the roots are able to go very deep to find water, unlike grafted vines that cannot go so deep.

From your knowledge, are all fine wine production areas globally under threat? 
It is now generally known in wine growing countries across the world that global warming is a big threat. Just ask wine producers in Napa Valley or Australia. If you have no water, you have no wine! Before this year, Pomerol winemakers did not need to add water to the soil because their clay soils retain water. But for Italian producers of Merlot, you have to irrigate.

I just don’t understand why you need to grow Merlot in Italy when they already have more than 500 native varietals. Clearly, it’s to copy the Bordeaux style of wine, which is akin to making a Coca-Cola wine. When you need to irrigate, you have a big problem because you are making wine, not growing corn. Perhaps, by the end of this century, it will be possible to make fine wine in Brittany, but not Bordeaux; sparkling wine in Southern England, but not Champagne; and Pinot Noir in the Loire Valley, but not Burgundy. It will depend on how many degrees of warming take place between now and then.

Loic Pasquet of Liber Pater, Bordeaux – “a warrior and an optimist”.  MONOPOLE

Given the enormous challenges producers are facing from climate change, why isn’t this reflected in the price per hectare of vineyards in some of the worst affected regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne? 
It is a good question. Why buy thousands of hectares in areas where we know, today, that it will be impossible to make fine wine in 20 years? For example, the soils are just not deep enough in Saint-Émilion; in less than five years, they will need irrigation just like they have done this year in Pomerol. The problem with irrigation is that it changes the taste of the wine and destroys the ‘vintage’ variation.

You also have the problem of where you take the water from. As I’ve been saying for many years, the French AOC Classification system is an out-dated system. It is dead, even if nobody else publicly acknowledges it. If tomorrow, fine wine lovers and collectors understand that the classified châteaux are putting water in their vines, I am certain they won’t buy their wines anymore. Because this isn’t fine wine! It would be better to find new terroir, like we have in the Graves region, replant with Francs de Pied, native varietals on good deep soils. If you add water to the soil, you’re acknowledging failure as it is the harbinger of average wine; it is like being a hospital patient on a drip, which clearly is not a sign of good health. It is impossible to make fine wine this way.

What do you think the impact of climate change will be on the fine wine consumer? 
Undoubtedly, it will be more and more difficult to make fine wine so there’s going to be less of it for consumers to enjoy. Without a wholesale change in approach, we might soon see the last bottles of fine wine being made in Bordeaux.

How has the recent fire affected your mental state? 
I am a warrior and an optimist. I’m tired, but I’m still standing upright. Many people were worried for me and gave me a lot of emotional support. I didn’t leave my vineyard for 12 days and nights, as I wanted to help the firefighters protect the vineyard. In the end, we won! Thank you to everybody around the world for your support. The vineyard of Liber Pater is like a treasure for humanity as we have a vineyard exactly as it was before Phylloxera: Francs de Pied and native varietals in Bordeaux – it’s unique.

If readers are interested in learning more about Les Francs de Pied, how can they do so? 
All fine wine lovers can become members of the Association http://www.francsdepied.org, and thereby support 8,000 years of European wine cultural heritage.

Click here to see a video of the recent fires on the fringes of Liber Pater, Bordeaux

Lewis Chester DipWSET is a London-based wine collector, member of the Académie du Champagne and Chevaliers du Tastevin, co-founder of Liquid Icons and, along with Sasha Lushnikov, co-founder of the Golden Vines® Awards. He is also Honorary President and Head of Fundraising at the Gérard Basset Foundation, which funds diversity & inclusivity education programmes globally in the wine, spirits & hospitality sectors.

 

 

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