The Great ‘Claret’ Controversy

I was just “getting into” wine. I was on a trip to Lisbon for my employer, and I was to meet up with our European rep. We scheduled a dinner meeting in the “new” part of town, a neighborhood packed with restaurants and bars.

I asked the desk attendant for a recommendation. She got on the phone and made a 7 o’clock reservation for me. It was a Friday night, and the first thing I noticed when I got to the restaurant was how empty it was. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the hotel attendant was somehow related to the restaurant owner.

As I later learned, Lisbon is like a lot of European cities. It really doesn’t start rockin’ until around 10 o’clock. But our “early” reservation accommodated a very productive meeting in an atmosphere of near silence.

The other thing I remember about that meal was the conversation we had about wine. My associate, a full generation older than I, was from England and had been drinking wine for decades. I had a good knowledge base for a newcomer to the gifts of the fermented grape, so I could talk the talk pretty well.

Or so I thought.

When the time came to order a bottle to enjoy with dinner, I asked my associate to make the selection. Without hesitation, he said to the server, “Please bring us a nice bottle of claret.”

Claret?!? Did he mean Cabernet? Or perhaps Chianti? I expected the server to ask for clarification.

Instead, in quite good English, she replied, “Very good choice, sir.”

We had both ordered beef dishes, so I figured “claret” probably was a red wine of some kind. As I recall, “Red Wine With Fish” had not yet been published. But beyond “red,” I had no idea what to expect.

When the bottle arrived and our first glasses of wine had been poured, I asked my associate if I could look at the label. I examined it closely, searching for the word “claret.” It was nowhere to be found. Upon further examination, I determined that the bottle was from a chateau in the Bordeaux region of France.

I then tasted the wine, and it was quite good. It wasn’t as fruitful as many of the Cabernet Sauvignon wines I’d had from Napa Valley, but it was big and bold and brimming with complex, earth-like flavors. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I was experiencing “terroir” in a wine glass.

Eventually, I got around to asking my associate why he had referred to this bottle of Bordeaux — likely a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend — as “claret.”

His reply was succinct: “That’s what we call red Bordeaux in England.”

It turns out the term had been used by the Brits for centuries — a little bit of trivia that was good for an aspiring wine geek to know.

More recently, we’re told, the word has fallen out of fashion. But according to Decanter, that may soon change if Allan Sichel has anything to say about it. Sichel is a wine merchant and president of the Union des Maisons de Negoce de Bordeaux, and he’d like to see the phrase “Claret de Bordeaux” used to describe the red wines of Bordeaux that mirror the easy-drinking style long associated with the word “claret.”

You can read Decanter’s full report here.

“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,” Sichel told Decanter. He wants to see the phrase legitimized as a commercial brand.

Well, that’s where he loses me. Even though it includes the regional designation of “Bordeaux” in its name, I can see the phrase causing problems down the road. Why? Because a number of American wineries now make wines that they label as “Claret.”

I Googled “Napa Valley Claret,” and the search returned the names of numerous California wineries that are using the word for various bottlings. Among them: Newton, White Rock, Ramey, Bell Wine Cellars, Steltzner and Robert Foley.

And that was only on the first search results page.

I’m all for protecting legitimate regional names in the world of wine.

Bordeaux. Burgundy.

Piemonte. Veneto.

Mosel. Rheingau.

Etc. Etc.

I’m also am all for encouraging greater clarity on wine labels. (Side note: “Claret” is derived from “clairet,” which means clear.)

But branding a mere nickname such as Claret? C’mon.

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Care to comment on the great claret controversy? We’d love to know what you think. The comments box below awaits.

Posted in Wine Buzz
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