05 January 2015

What do people in Bordeaux
call their best bottle of Claret?

Enjoying a bottle of Claret at home last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

It is amazing how English football clubs are known by their colours – the Blues, the Sky Blues, the Reds … and so on.

Last night, I had opened a nice bottle of Claret, as I watched the football results on television. Aston Villa was saved from embarrassment when they just managed a 1-0 win over Blackpool. One report referred to a “late Claret and Blue winner against battling Tangerines in FA Cup third round.”

As I sipped a glass from that bottle of Château Mezain, I wondered how Bordeaux ever came to be known as Claret in the English-speaking world.

For a long time, I had tended to avoid French wines, preferring Italian, Greek and sometimes Spanish or even Portuguese labels. But this bottle was an irresistible bargain in Tesco in Rathfarnham the other evening.

Almost 90% of wine produced in Bordeaux is red, and is generally known as “claret” in this part of the English-speaking world. Though it has fallen out of fashion, the word claret – from clairet or clear - was for centuries used in England as a generic term for Bordeaux red wine.

But why?

The word claret derives from the French clairet (“clear”), but refers to an uncommon dark rosé, which was the most common wine exported from Bordeaux until the 18th century. This name was anglicised to “claret” because of its widespread popularity in England from the 12th to the 15th century.

The popularity of Bordeaux wines in England increased dramatically after the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The export of Bordeaux to England was interrupted when the Hundred Years’ War between France and England broke out in 1337. By the end of the war in 1453, France had taken possession of Bordeaux, and had also taken control of wine production in the region.

In mediaeval France, most red wine was the result of a short fermentation, of no more than one or two days. This short period created wines that were pale in colour, and were probably similar to a rosé today. These wines were exported from Bordeaux and were known as vinum clarum, vin clar or Clairet, the word that gives us the English term claret.

Although the term clairet was widely used in mediaeval France, the word claret does not appear to have been used extensively in England until the 16th century. In the second half of the 17th century a new type of wine, of much higher quality and deeper colour, began to be produced in the Graves and on the sands and gravels of the Médoc, north-west of Bordeaux. These wines with improved methods of vinification, and using new oak barrels, were known by the early 18th century as New French Clarets, and the earliest and most famous of them were Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, and Margaux.

Today, the Bordeaux region, with a total vineyard area of over 120,000 hectares, is the largest wine growing area in France. The designation “Claret” is a protected name in the European Union, reserved for red Bordeaux wine. The ruling came after the British wine trade demonstrated the term had been used for over 300 years.

However, the French never use the term “Claret,” except for export purposes, so when the word now appears on bottles of red Bordeaux it is an effort to raise their status in the market. In particular, the term Claret de Bordeaux is applied to wines that are “light and fruity, easy to drink, in the same style as the original claret when it was prized by the English in former centuries.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) once said: “He who aspires to be a serious wine drinker must drink claret.” But he also said: “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” Susan Ertz (1894-1985), the English novellist described someone in these terms: “He talked with more claret than clarity.”

Bordeaux is the capital of the department of Gironde and the centre of this wine trade. The vineyard name of the district is the Bordelais. Bordeaux wines are mild, not very astringent, pure and fragrant, provided you get fairly good ones. They include high-class wines, fine wines, and ordinary wines. As a rule, a sea voyage improves them, while it deteriorates Burgundies. The high-grade clarets should always be warmed to room temperature to bring out their bouquet and flavour. They gain in bouquet by keeping in the bottle, if they are properly corked.

The Medoc wines, named from a province of the Bordeaux country, are among the best of clarets. They include Château Margaux, Château Lafite and Château Latour. Medoc wines are natural wines, are not reinforced and are therefore mild clarets.

Recently the discount supermarket chain Lidl introduced a range of cut-price wines, including a bargain Bordeaux, in what is being referred to within the company as “the claret offensive.”

Lidl’s arch-rival Aldi also introduced a “super premium” range including Bordeaux, and Tesco has been buying Bordeaux en primeur (in advance of bottling) for a few years. Apparently, Lidl is taking 5% of all the wine that is currently available in Bordeaux.

One wine reviewer asked why Bordeaux, rather than Burgundy or the Rhône? After all, as Moliere once said, “If Claret is the king of natural wines, Burgundy is the queen.” I suppose it’s because the English-speaking wine drinker still knows what Claret is.

Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) once said in Fawlty Towers: “Most of the guests who stay here wouldn’t know the difference between Bordeaux and Claret.”

An old French proverb says: “Burgundy for kings, champagne for duchesses, claret for gentlemen.”

But I suppose asking what the people of Bordeaux call their Claret is like asking what the Chinese call their best cups and saucers, or what people in the Belgian capital call their sprouts.

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