Tue 11 Oct 2011
No, blanc de blancs Champagne will not yield its supreme place in my heart to any upstart, but I tasted and, yeah, just outright drank a great deal of what’s called Bordeaux Clairet when I was in Entre-Deux-Mers during the last week of September, and it’s a wine that brings lots of pleasure, delight and savor, qualities that are often overlooked in our search for vinous experiences of the profound variety. Sometimes it’s fine if a wine just makes you feel good and perhaps brings a smile to your undernourished lips and a twinkle to your jaded eye. Bordeaux Clairet — the final “t” should be pronounced according to the regional idiom of Bordeaux — is a bit darker and slightly more substantial and flavorful than Bordeaux Rosé, which is made in the traditional pale French manner, but less dark and less substantial than Bordeaux rouge. The color tends to be brilliant cerise or scarlet rather than the onion skin or light copper of a rosé or the dark ruby of red Bordeaux. In fact, Bordeaux Clairet resembles, as far as people understand, the delicate light-colored wines that began to be exported to England in the 12th century and continued until the late 17th Century when the wine’s character began to be darker, weightier and more age-worthy. Those earlier wines gave the British the word “claret,” by which they still refer to the red wines of Bordeaux.
The grapes for Bordeaux Clairet are the same as for any red wine made in Bordeaux: merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with malbec and petit verdot allowed but seldom seen. Clairet tends to come from younger vines and typically is not aged in barrels. The ideal is a young, fresh, juicy wine of immediate appeal — think spiced strawberries and mulberries with a hint of black and red currants — that offers moderate texture and body and avoids the austerity or aridity that sometimes defines a very dry and delicate rosé. Clairet really goes well with charcuterie.
The Bordeaux Clairet appellation coincides with all of the Bordeaux region; in other words, chateaux in any appellation, even high-toned Margaux and Pauillac, Pomerol and St. Emilion, could produce Clairet if they so desired. Imagine the cellarmaster at Mouton-Rothschild or Latour saying, “Alors, I have a thought. Let’s take these three rows of not quite up to snuff grapes and turn them into a few thousand bottles of Clairet.” Well, no, that’s not going to happen; grapes at the grand houses are too valuable to waste in such a way; that’s why the concept of the “second wine” was invented.
Realistically, Bordeaux Clairet is made by the smaller properties that produce A.O.C. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. In fact, most of the chateaux we visited on our brief tour offered both Bordeaux Rosé and Bordeaux Clairet, but the latter is not made in large amounts. Clairet production totals about 33,912 hectoliters — a hectoliter, which is a hundred liters, equals 26.4 gallons — or about 377,000 cases. That’s about 13.5 percent of the production of Bordeaux Rosé and just a drop in the barrel compared to AOC Bordeaux Red and Bordeaux Supérieur Red.
Very little Bordeaux Clairet is exported to the United States, if any is at all. Many wineries in California now produce rosé wines in a “New World” style that’s darker, spicier and more flavorful than the traditional pale Provençal-style rosé, so what would it behoove properties in Bordeaux to send their Clairet across the Atlantic? Better, perhaps, for the wine-producing families to keep Clairet for local restaurants, for themselves, their friends and honored guests. I know that I’ll look forward to a glass or two of Clairet when I return to Bordeaux.