How Bordeaux Lost Her Grapes

Long time readers know the story – in the mid 19th century a blight swept across Europe. By the time the vintners of France figured out a yellow aphid called the phylloxera bug was responsible, their vineyards had already been devastated.

Phylloxera was not just a disaster for the industry, it altered the very composition and character of French wine. Starting then, the vast majority of French vines would grow grafted onto American rootstocks. And grapes that had been mainstays of French wine since the Middle Ages virtually disappeared... some of them not to be rediscovered for over a century. These were Bordeaux’s lost grapes.

More on that in a moment. But first… Some useful information about new vs used oak barrels.

This week, Julien explains the different effects of aging wine in new or used oak… the expense of procuring these barrels (an astonishing % of the final bottle cost)… how to seek out the right amount of oak based on the grape (and which grapes don’t do well with oak at all)…

Bordeaux’s Lost Grapes (Continued)

The Lost Grapes: Malbec

The exact list of “lost grapes” is a matter of some debate, as is what exactly constituted a “Bordeaux” grape in the pre-phylloxera era.

For example, Bordeaux sometimes likes to lay claim to malbec (or “malbeck” or “auxerrois” or “côt” or “cahors” as it was called). And indeed the branding of the grape as “malbec” may have been a Bordeaux invention of the 18th century when, as legend has it, a M. Malbeck brought the varietal there. Or perhaps malbec had been there all along. Other sources say malbec vineyards dominated Bordeaux in the 17th century, when the Dutch were still draining the Left Bank, before anyone had even heard of cabernet sauvignon.

But malbec had other names, too, specifically Cahors and auxerrois, which point to other origins for the grape. Auxerre lies on the northern fringe of Bourgogne, while Cahors is a town in southwestern France, near Toulouse.

In any case, as longtime readers will know, malbec did not escape the phylloxera blight. What little remained after the epidemic died off in a great frost about eighty years later.

Malbec is arguably the only big success story among the “lost grapes.” Having moved to Argentina in 1845, malbec found its true home at elevations up to 10,000 feet higher than Bordeaux, with 80% more UV exposure, and 79% less rainfall, along Argentina’s western frontier.


The Lost Grapes: Chilean "Merlot"

The other success, though to a far lesser degree, is “Chilean merlot.”

Up until the 1990s, one of Chile’s main varieties was a red grape the locals referred to as “merlot.” In fact, it was a grape most everyone thought to be extinct: carménère.

Up till about 1867, a key component of the Bordeaux blend was carménère, which lent the old reds a peppercorn, or sometimes bitter chocolate, note. After phylloxera all trace of it seemed to disappear until 1994 when a French winemaker visiting Chile noticed that the leaves on the so-called “merlot” vines were unusually big and rounded. Not to mention the grapes, even on Chile’s sun stroked hillsides, took forever to ripen.

Chile has traditionally been a bulk wine producer – quantity over quality. But carménère is rediscovering its voice in Chile’s Colchagua Valley (southwest of Argentina’s Mendoza region, with a heavy Pacific Ocean influence) where winemakers are experimenting with “hedonistic” reds.


The Lost Grapes: Saint-Macaire & Gros Verdot

Bordeaux’s other two “lost grapes” are far less well known and, in fact, banned from the Bordeaux appellation altogether.

Just one hectare of the red grape Saint-Macaire remains in all of France today. Three hundred years ago, it grew in some quantity on the Right Bank and featured regularly in the blend – soft, deep, but with a bitter, puckering twist.

After phylloxera Saint-Macaire died out (save for the singular hectare) in France. Small plantings exist today in California’s Howell Mountain and Sonoma. It is sometimes included in “Meritage” wines, California’s attempt at creating a codified Bordeaux style blend. Plantings also exist in Australia.

(Though there is a Saint-Macaire village in Bordeaux, which falls under the Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, the grape is banned there as in the rest of Bordeaux.)

It was the necessity of grafting French vines onto American rootstocks that killed gros verdot. The vine, once a mainstay, couldn’t tolerate the grafting, leading it to die out in the post-phyll world (making things even more difficult: gros verdot is highly susceptible to phylloxera).

Belying its name, gros verdot is unrelated to petit verdot. Its grapes are also smaller. The “verdot” name may come from its long ripening period. Besides its susceptibility to phylloxera, gros verdot is also finicky to grow – it requires a long time on the vine to rid itself of an overly acidic, “green” taste.

Banned in Bordeaux since 1946, gros verdot is said to occasionally pop up in a California “Meritage” (though we’ve never seen it ourselves). Some claim that the California micro-varietal cabernet Pfeffer is, in fact, gros verdot. While DNA tests have found a link, the two are not the same grape.

Until next week,

The Wine Explorer

Bonner Private Wine Partnership