I had a brief but interesting chat with the wine producer Regis Chaigne the other day about Clairet and he asked me how I introduced this super wine to newcomers. Therein lies a problem. Clairet is not well known in Britain – although it used to be (more about that later). Some people think it is a light Red wine whilst others reckon it’s a Rosé. In a sense both are right, although in my opinion it is more akin to a Rosé. Shakespeare hit the nail on the head with Romeo and Juliet when he wrote:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”
And that’s the point really, no matter what we call Clairet once tasted it is always an immediate hit. It’s a well loved wine – one of my customers said of Regis’ Clairet: “quite simply has to be the best ever Rosé I’ve tasted”.
Clairet has been described as ‘A Rosé with a Pedigree’ and ‘A Rosé on Steroids‘ – Regis describes his beautiful Clairet made at Chateau Ballan Larquette as “Rosé de Gastronomie Familiale” which translates as ‘The Rosé of Family Cuisine.’ It’s a good description as Clairet is a food friendly wine and pairs well with a range of dishes (particularly pork, chicken, fish, seafood and an array of cold meats). I believe as a wine it’s far more versatile with foods than simply a Red or White; it creates good conversation around the table and offers something quite unique. It’s definitely a Red wine drinkers Rosé and a White wine drinkers alternative to a Red. Whether you drink Clairet chilled or not is down to personal preference, Regis recommends 13/14ºC.
So what is exactly is Clairet and how does it differ from Bordeaux Rosé? Clairet is a speciality of Bordeaux and wine makers there have been making this wine for centuries. It has its own appellation: AOC Bordeaux Clairet and is set apart quite distinctly from Rosé by its deeper colour, bouquet, body and flavour. If we step back in time red wine enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that Britain was drinking Clairet in the 13th century as it was the ‘Red’ wine of the day (and continued to do so right up until the 1700s)!
The word Clairet is the French for ‘clear ‘and this is where our word Claret comes from. Originally all Clarets were Clairets as wine making techniques were fairly rudimentary in those days and wines were made quickly to avoid spoiling. As soon as the wine was fermented, it was run off into barrels, so the grape skins (which contain the colour and tannins) were left only a short time in contact with the juice. These wines didn’t last long, and were usually drunk very quickly. Clairet was the most common wine exported from Bordeaux right up until the 18th century and inspired the British love affair with Claret that still exists today.
Both Bordeaux Rosé and Clairet are made in a similar manner using the Saignee method but in the case of Clairet the wine sits on the crushed grapes for longer (usually between 3 – 4 days in comparison to the 4 – 5 hours that is typical in the production of Rosé). This allows the Clairet to reach the depth of colour and fruit that it is so well known for. The grape varieties used in Clairet and Rosé are the same as those in Bordeaux Red wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. (The Carmenère grape is also permitted but it is so rare in Bordeaux nowadays you rarely find it in the wines).
So why is Clairet relatively unknown these days in Britain? In comparison we know about Bordeaux Rosé quite well. It boils down to publicity and fashion – a growing number of the top flight Grand Cru Classé Chateaux make Rosé alongside their prestigious Red wines (see my blog The Rise of Rosé: Cru Classé Chateaux Make Rosé Wines As Demand Increases). Rosé is more recognisable and therefore Clairet tends to fall under the radar outside France. This began to change in 1949 when the renowned forefather of modern oenology Professor Emile Peynaud founded the Cave de Quinsac (located on the vineyards of the old feudal Chateau de Pranzac at Langon) with an express view to save this lovely wine from extinction.
Things have changed and today Clairet is made on around 925 hectares of vineyards across Bordeaux and about 52,000 hl a year are produced. This is still tiny when compared to the production of the Red wine that Bordeaux is famous for and is only a third of that produced for Bordeaux Rosé. However it’s production is growing. What’s more Clairet is making its way back into Britain so if you haven’t tried it for yourself yet at last you have the chance to do so!
Experience it for yourself and tell me what you think – I would be very interested to hear your thoughts!