If you are a visitor to Bordeaux I’m sure you’ve tasted a Clairet. In the UK you might think I’ve made a spelling mistake. Surely I mean Claret? Although the names of these two wines, Clairet and Claret, are historically linked they mean very different things.
Clairet is one of 65 appellations that make up Bordeaux (that’s the official figure in 2016 – it’s a bit of a moveable feast). It is found in the sub group of Bordeaux known as ‘Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur’. This is the real, value for money powerhouse of Bordeaux, that represents about 50% of the region’s production and, as befits its size, a remarkable diversity of styles. Blended from the same red grapes that go into classic Bordeaux blends (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère), these light coloured wines tend to be dominated by Merlot as they come mainly from the cooler clay soils.
What is the difference between a Rosé and a Clairet? Basically the intensity of the colour. This is decided by measuring the quantity of natural pigments in the wine and there are strict levels that differentiate a Rosé from a Clairet and a Red wine to qualify for these three Bordeaux appellations.
In Bordeaux we make both Rosé and Clairet wines by the traditional method of leaving the whole grapes to macerate in the juice after a light pressing. No mixing red and white wines here.
Skins may stay in contact with the juice for as little as a few hours to make a light pink rosé, with many specialist producers using a continuous press system allowing the wine to stay on the skins for a short time then automatically run off, under airtight conditions. This protects the fresh acid and aromatic delicacy that these wines are known for.
The longer the juice macerates on the skins, the darker the colour of the wine. Too dark and you can legally no longer call your wine Rosé; it will be Clairet. Clairet is a ‘half way house’ between a light red and a rosé. The slightly longer maceration time on the skins ranges from 24-48 hours compared to just a few hours for some Rosés and reds usually macerate for up to 3 or 4 weeks. In hot years with really ripe fruit, it doesn’t take very long for colour to leach from the skins so a beady eye has to be kept on the juice to ensure running off happens at just the time to obtain just the shade of pink the winemaker and his clients are looking for.
The process of bleeding off the wine from the skins is known as ‘saignée’ (French for bleeding). Traditionally, these wines were made in vintages when yields were high, this can result in a weaker red wine, bigger berries means more pulp, more juice and less skin. Running off some of the juice after a couple of days of skin maceration will produce a lovely bright Rosé or Clairet and simultaneously concentrate the remaining must as it increases the proportion of skins to juice, naturally making the red wines more powerful. A great job – two wines for the price of one.
Rosé and Clairet are no longer a simple by-product of red production. Specialist producers choose specific, usually cooler, plots for these wines. Picking at just the right time to keep acidity and freshness but with ripe enough skins to give the peachy, rose petal and raspberry notes, yet not over ripe to get too much colour. It’s quite a balancing act.
Wine making usually takes place in stainless style – perfectly clean, cool and airtight to keep that precious fresh acidity and those delicate aromas. Unlike the big red brothers Clairet is not obliged to undergo the secondary, or malolactic, fermentation, which would reduce the acidity in the wine. Again it’s all about freshness.They may however age the wine for a few months on the lees to add a roundness to the wine.
These very affordable wines merit a little more attention, they are more complicated to make than they appear; getting the balance right at harvest and during wine making to obtain the ideal colour, aromas and freshness takes skill. With more personality than a light rosé they remain a very affordable local secret. The Bordelais serve them chilled as summer lunch wines, perfect for an aperitif, picnic, beach or barbecue. Clairet wines are bucking the current trend for rosé wines getting lighter and lighter, production grew by 25% last year to reach about 4.5 million bottles.
So what has this got to do with Claret?
In medieval times and up until the 17th century we’re fairly sure all of the Bordeaux wines were made like this; much lighter than the red wines made in Bordeaux today. Thanks to a thirsty population and close ties going back to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Henry Plantagenet in 1152, England was then the leading market for Bordeaux wines, (it’s currently in second place just behind China).
The term Claret, currently used in the UK as a generic term for red Bordeaux, probably came from a mispronunciation or misspelling by the English of the locally used Clairet.
Claret was already well established by the 17th century. When Château Haut Brion launched their new style wine, made using revolutionary techniques including a longer maceration and aging in barrels, they called it ‘the New French Claret’ to differentiate from other ‘Claret’ on the market. Claret remains today a term rarely used outside of the UK market.
So Clairet or Claret? With spring just around the corner and lighter wines on your mind you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Here are a few of my favourite Clairets, all from family run properties in the heart of the Entre Deux Mers, that you should be able to find on export markets.
Chateau Penin, 100% Merlot, macerates between between 24 and 60 hours pending upon the individual plot. Four months aging on the lees accentuates the lovely fruity length, great with spicy food.
Chateau Thieuley A blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet sauvignon, cool stainless steel fermented to keep the fresh raspberry and strawberry aromas.
Château Lestrille Capmartin 100% Merlot, pressed after 24 hours, cool fermented to retain lovely fresh cherry, and raspberry notes, aged for a few months on the lees for a lovely smooth mouthfeel.
These wines should be enjoyed within 3 years of their harvest date so don’t hang around.