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Claret or Bordeaux? Branding for the British and How To Mess It Up

This week La Vigne Magazine reported that the CIVB (Interprofessional Committee of Bordeaux Wines), although pleased at the news that exports of Bordeaux wine were up, are concerned that some of their ‘future projects’ are still struggling to advance. One of these projects is the introduction of the term ‘Claret’ as a marketing / branding exercise. This was announced last year and the plan is to use ‘Claret de Bordeaux’ for 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’. It’s thought that the term will be used as a commercial brand name mainly by AOC Bordeaux, AOC Bordeaux Superieur and AOC Cotes de Bordeaux, to allow them to create new brands with a clear taste profile for consumers.

A spokesperson for the CIVB told Decanter.com that the use of the term will be used from the 2012 vintage onwards and that it is not a new AOC ‘but a commercial brand aimed at re-invigorating the everyday drinking category of Bordeaux wines.’ Georges Haushalter, President of the CIVB, has said that it’s important that the ODG Bordeaux (representative body of the Côtes de Bordeaux) and Bordeaux Supérieur take in hand the matter. He also said that a core group of traders would be involved in the project and that legal and administrative barriers stood in the way, particularly those related to rewriting the specifications of AOC Clairet.

Being a fan of Bordeaux Clairet I intend to investigate this further but putting this to one side for a moment I want to look at the wisdom behind the CIVB’s decision to brand Claret. Claret is not the French name for Bordeaux wine and the French themselves do not generally use the term. It was coined by us Brits before the 17th century as an anglicised version of the French word ‘Clairet’ – which was more of a deep rosé coloured wine than the red we recognise today. (For more detailed info on Clairet wines check out Bordeaux Clairet under the AOC section at Bordeaux-Undiscovered). So, if you like, ‘Claret’ was an early form of British branding.

Britain was a big market for French Claret and as styles developed the wine became redder. During the 17th century Claret from Bordeaux was given the ‘English Treatment’ whereby darker, beefier reds from Spain were added to the blend, probably made from teinturier grapes which produce a lot of colour (teinturier means to dye or stain). In 1815 Joseph Coppinger wrote that:

in order to strengthen the natural body of claret wine, and to render it capable of bearing the transition of the sea, the first and second growths are allowed from ten to fifteen gallons of good Alicant[e] wine to every hogshead, with one quart of stum. The casks are then filled up and bunged down. The third, or inferior growth, is exactly treated in same way, with the single exception of having Benicarlo wine substituted for Alicant[e] in preparing them for their second fermentation, as cheaper and better suited to their quality; both these wines are of Spanish growth, and brought to Bordeaux by the canal of Languedoc: they are naturally of a much stronger body than native claret.”

So, Claret as we know it nowadays is dark red, and is very ‘British’. I can’t help wondering if Bordeaux’s intended reclamation of brand ‘Claret’ will have a negative impact on Clairet – which is a lovely wine in its own right and deserves more recognition. Won’t these 2 terms add to the confusion if the ‘New French Clarets’ coming out of Bordeaux in 2012 are – to quote – ‘light and fruity, easy to drink, in the same style as the original claret when it was prized by the English in former centuries’? Our notion of Claret is not that of a ‘light’ wine.

Actually, the Sediment Blog has a wonderful summary of what our notion of Claret is in their blog Claret or Bordeaux? Chateau Tour de Barberau and point out that the word Claret rresonates with history, with class, with Englishness and encompasses our national love of time past.

Whether we like it or not Claret still denotes ‘class’ – not in sense of the English class system (although there are plenty of people out there who may disagree) – but in the sense that Claret stands for quality. Claret stands for good taste, style, even a certain panache. It’s a wine with a pedigree. That’s why we get so annoyed by cheap plonk with Claret slapped on the label.

The other problem the CIVB have is that brand Claret will only be recognised by the British. As Allan Sichel, MD of Sichel wine merchants and president of the Union des Maisons de Negoce de Bordeaux, told Decanter.com, “for the new brand to work, it needs it to have legitimacy not only in England, but in all export markets, and within France itself. We feel confident that it is simple and clear enough to work.”

I disagree with him – I don’t think the CIVB have got it quite right. In my eyes it’s no wonder the project is stalling. I think they are in danger of devaluing Claret, pushing Clairet into obscurity and confusing Bordeaux wine enthusiasts who are not British. What do you think?

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16 Responses to Claret or Bordeaux? Branding for the British and How To Mess It Up

  1. Nick, I agree with you completely as far as claret/clairet is concerned, being very keen on the latter. Is CIVB proposing to make ‘Claret’ a trademark of some sort? Surely not when that particular word is so historic, but perhaps ‘Claret de Bodeaux’ could be. But if that did turn out to be successful, what would stop other wines then being marketed as ‘claret-style’ or some such? I wonder if the French really appreciate what they are up against in a globalised wine market like the UK’s.

    • Nick says:

      Western Independent – glad to hear I am not alone in being keen on Clairet! France does have protective measures in place over the use of its wine terms eg chateau, clos etc – as they do with champagne. I presume claret would be added to this legislation – but you are right, it doesn’t prevent copy cats and besides how could France lay claim to a British term???

      Cheers Nick

  2. John Radford says:

    This is a vexed question. I remember that after joining the Common Market in 1973 (and having to sell Bordeaux which actually came from Bordeaux and not Rioja) the term ‘claret’ could still be used on any red wine – indeed, there’s a story in Metro today about a three-tonne bottle of ‘Jinding claret’ which indicates that is still a generic term elsewhere in the world. In the 1970s some outfit (might have been the Wine Standards Board) ruled that the word ‘claret’ could only be used on Bordeaux wines, but, of course, that was only valid in the UK. Currently, in Bordeaux the term seems to have become synonymous with rosé, which is very much not how claret is perceived here. In Italy ‘chiaretto’ and in Spain ‘clarete’ both mean the same thing – a light red, half way in colour between red and rosé. The only solution would seem to be that the CIVB should petition the EU to have ‘claret’ established is a full AOP applicable only to the wines of Bordeaux. Its actual style could then be regulated by the CIVB internally.

    • Nick says:

      John – thanks for your sound reasoning. I agree with you that the AOP/AOC route may be the only way forward if the CIVB want to regulate the term. As you say it is a vexed question and there are many pitfalls to overcome – the style of the wine being one of them.

      Cheers

      Nick

  3. Peter May says:

    As I recall the UK fought long and hard with the EU for the name ‘claret’ be to given protection as a synonym for the red wines of Bordeaux on the grounds that they have been called that by the British for 300 years.
    The French can’t hijack the name to be restricted to just a subset of Bdx. They have the name clairet, let them use that if they wish. But Bordeaux is the real brand name and that is recognised around the world. Sounds like some of Siobhan Sharpe’s French colleagues are involved……. totally!

  4. I vaguely remember a discussion on an American board where they seemed to think we Brits used “Claret” only in a degoratory sense. Maybe they were thinking of “luncheon Claret”? Nice to see the French are planning on adding further to the confusion.

    • Nick says:

      Good point Steve – I wonder why the Americans got the idea that we used Claret in a degrogatory sense from? It just shows how the term adds to the confusion doesn’t it. Any Americans out there who can explain further?

      Cheers

      Nick

  5. Nick, once again, excellent post, you hit the bull’s eye.
    This complicated topic is actually debated within our syndicat, and the comments of this post show that we French misunderstand English meaning of Claret…

    • Nick says:

      Thanks Regis :-) Glad to hear that you have been debating the issue in the syndicat – I do think the CIVB need to reassess the situation

      Cheers

      Nick

  6. I agree entirely. The use of the word claret will cause much confusion.

  7. In my opinion, Claret de Bordeaux is like saying Burgundy de Bourgogne – Claret, whether correctly or not – has been used as a generic word for red wine from Bordeaux for many years, by those in the UK. It has been dying out, which I feel is for the better as people reference the wines more accurately. Bringing it back in this way will cause confusion. And yes, there will be further complications with Clairet too. In today’s wine market, simplicity and connection with values – the chief of which is authenticity – count for so much. Resurrecting something from the past has little appeal, particularly to refer only to ‘lighter drinking styles – where will they draw the line as to what will be Claret de Bordeaux and what won’t?

    • Nick says:

      Thanks for your comment Belinda :-) Your point re today’s wine market requiring simplicity/authenticity is an excellent one. If I hear any news from the CIVB on the ‘definition’ of what Claret de Bordeaux is to be I’ll keep you posted. I am wondering if the entire exercise will stall and slowly disappear, but given the budget they have to spend on it I doubt it.

      Cheers

      Nick