Monthly Archives: February 2016

Claret or Clairet?

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.

A continuous press at Chateau Thieuley in the Entre Deux Mers

A continuous press at Chateau Thieuley in the Entre Deux Mers

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.

Running of. Dark enough or too dark?

Running off. Dark enough or too dark?

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.

Waiting for just the right colour

Waiting for just the right colour

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 Clairet

Chateau Penin Clairet



Chateau Penin100% 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 Clairet

Chateau Thieuley Clairet



Chateau Thieuley  A blend of 60% Merlot and  40%  Cabernet sauvignon, cool stainless steel fermented to keep  the fresh raspberry and strawberry aromas.





Chateau Lestrille Cap Martin

Chateau Lestrille Cap Martin




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.


Terroir: The science behind the soil.

Terroir when discussing wine can be a controversial subject. Not only does the definition vary from country to country or person to person but opinions as to its influence on the final product and just how that influence happens is also open to debate.

Does the definition include only soil and topography? But then there’s climate and microclimate, and what about the role of man as a grape grower and even as a wine maker – how does that fit into the definition?

Bdx micro climate

Does the definition of terroir include the maritime climate of Bordeaux?

Wine being defined by the place it’s grown may be a European or old-world concept, but things are changing. Although most European wines are still very much about the place, it is the foundation of the appellation system after all, the influence of the wine maker (or consultant wine maker) is playing a larger part. Famous wine makers and consultants now sign off on wines around the world. Interestingly in the ‘new world’, it would seem the opposite is happening. Whereas as once the role of the wine maker and wine-making techniques was paramount, the notion of terroir and its influence seems to be gaining ground (pun intended). Could it be that the new and old wine worlds are reaching a consensus?

Where does the influence of terroir end and wine making begin? The wine cellar in the heart of the terroir at Chateau Feret Lambert in the Entre Deux Mers

Where does the influence of terroir end and wine making begin? The wine cellar in the heart of the terroir at Chateau Feret Lambert in the Entre Deux Mers

In many regions it’s all about the place, Bordeaux very much so, Burgundy even more and on my recent visit to South Africa, Haskell, Jordan and Klein Constantia the identification and isolation of different terroirs was at the forefront of every conversation.

The Terroir wall at Ellerman House Hotel in Cape Town show cases the variety of South african wine terroir.

The Terroir wall at Ellerman House Hotel in Cape Town show cases the variety of South african wine terroir.

With improved techniques such as measuring soil resistivity, satellite technology (and good old fashioned digging of holes), the notion of terroir is becoming more precise. In Bordeaux, recent investment in the cellars has all been about smaller and smaller vats; each vat destined to receive the grapes from a specific plot as a better understanding of terroir leads vineyards to divide their land into smaller and smaller units.

Plot by plot identification at Chateau Rauzan Segla in Margaux

Plot by plot identification at Chateau Rauzan Segla in Margaux

This has always been the case in Burgundy; here you can stand at certain crossroads and almost touch three or four different appellations. Unlike Bordeaux with our blends, in Burgundy they only really use one red varietal, Pinto Noir, so the personality of different plots has to be down to the place; the terroir. Wander through a Burgundy cellar and the many barrels may each contain wine from a different plot, each one a different appellation. It’s not unusual to see 6 or more different appellations in one cellar, all grown and vinified by the same team.

Not so in Bordeaux. We blend varietals but we also blend terroir, all those row of barrels from the different plots in a Bordeaux cellar will end up being blended together in to one, two or maybe three different wines. So why cultivate and vinifiy each plot of land separately if you are going to end up blending it all together?

Two reasons: As we have a more precise understanding of the terroir it allows for a better choice of grape varieties best suited to each plot, to produce a better wine. But there’s more to choose from than just varietals. It’s also the clone of the varietal and the rootstock. As Bordeaux vines are grafted, the grower has a choice of rootstocks that suit different soils, either limiting or increasing the vigour of the plant. But these choices are only made every sixty or seventy years or so when replanting.

Old vines, well adapted to their terroir?

Old vines, well adapted to their terroir?

The second reason is more about how we treat these plots year on year; how the soils are ploughed and fertilised, how the vines are pruned, trellised and trimmed and the all important harvest date. Ripeness can vary enormously from plot to plot depending on soil composition; clay soils tend to be cooler, gravel soils warmer, sun exposure can also change – it all adds to the terroir puzzle.

How does working the soil influence terroir.

How does working the soil influence terroir?

So coming back to that definition of the term, what of the role of the grower? Does terroir remain the same or has man changed it? In regions like Bordeaux where grapes have been grown since the middle ages one suspects that yes, man fiddling about with the terroir since they first started planting vines has had an effect.

Man has had an influence on terroir in historic vineyards - such as here in Sicily

Man has had an influence on terroir in historic vineyards – such as here in Sicily

A key example is drainage. Water is a key element in terroir: the soils’ ability to retain or drain. While many vineyards of the world are suffering from drought, in Bordeaux’s maritime climate we tend to have too much water. Drainage is a Bordeaux obsession, a lot of time and money is invested in insuring good drainage either natural or giving it a helping hand. The famous draining of the Medoc peninsula by the Dutch in the 17th century gives the site we know today – very different from it’s original ‘terroir’.

Drainage ditches in the grey clay of Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion

Drainage ditches in the blue clay of Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion

Then there is fertilisation, composting, ploughing and chemical treatments; continued over hundred of years surely this too has to affect the sense of place? The return to a more natural and eco friendly approach to vine growing after the excesses of the 70s is perhaps also a desire to return to a more real sense of terroir?

Most wine drinkers may not know or care what terroir means; they may choose their wine as a function of one or several grape varieties. But those of us who are lucky enough to taste wines from different places, and people, will recognise that the same grape variety can produce many different styles of wine depending upon where it is grown.

In Bordeaux we generalise by saying a right bank Saint Emilion is Merlot driven and a left bank is Cabernet Sauvignon driven. But look closer and we see this benchmark differentiation is not always strictly true. For example in the Medoc, in the Moulis and in Listrac appellations, you will find properties here that have a high percentage of Merlot, but they still taste like a left bank wine, they still have the taste of the place. It’s important that it does, one of the categories looked at when wines are assessed for their appellation certification is indeed typicity, this sense of place.

So you can start to see the importance of understanding terroir. If this has whetted your appetite for the subject I can recommend two books, that I have mentioned in a previous post,  to help you take the idea further.

Charles Frankel is a French, wine-loving geologist. In his book Land and Wine: The French terroir, he paints an fascinating picture of the terroirs of all the leading French wine regions and how they came to be. He tells a story that starts 500 million years ago and, instead of dry science, the subject matter includes not just the rocks but how they got there and how other historical influences give us the vineyards we have today.

Land and Wine by Charles Frankel

Land and Wine by Charles Frankel

Jamie Goode, is a leading British wine blogger under the name The Wine Anorak, in the latest edition of his book Wine Science, the application of Science in Wine Making he has included a chapter on how soils shape wine as well as the original chapter on terroir.

Wine science by Jamie Goude

Wine science by Jamie Goode

It addresses the question of exactly how terroir influences the taste of the wine in your glass. Or does it? Jamie is first and foremost a scientist and he brings this rigour to the subject of vine growing, wine making and wine tasting. In our more romantic vision of wine we often forget it is a science, he manages to remind us without losing any of the passion he obviously has for wine.

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, these books might create a thirst for more, consume with moderation.