What’s in a name? For the claret, quite a bit
Unless a wine business has been grandfathered in, American wines may no longer be labeled Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Port, Sauterne and Sherry – the most common among 17 banned names that fall under a Standards of Identity agreement between the U.S. and the European Union.
It’s a law that makes sense and corrects decades of abuse of these terms. Thanks to such mislabeled wines, many older Americans remain convinced that Chablis is any cheap, semisweet white wine, and champagne is anything with bubbles.
But ironically, in at least one instance, the banned word may actually be the best choice.
Claret is an old-fashioned wine term whose roots go back to the British wine trade of the 1600s. Clarets of the day were decent quality red wines from the Bordeaux region, shipped in casks to British wine merchants, who bottled them under their own labels.
These days (to my knowledge) there are no Bordeaux wines actually labeled claret, but there are quite a few blends made in the U.S. that used to be and that have no better alternative.
Bordeaux-style blends that use some or all of the five classic red Bordeaux grapes (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec) may be given proprietary names. Or they may use Meritage (rhymes with heritage).
This made-up word was the winning entry in a California competition back in the 1980s. The search was on for a term that would represent a reserve-quality Bordeaux-style blend.
Meritage is now trademarked; a winery must pay to use the term on a wine label. Whether or not it’s worth paying for is another question. In my many years of wine writing, I have yet to hear from a consumer eagerly in search of a good Meritage.
Which brings us back to claret – a perfectly fine word that essentially means the same thing as Meritage, with the added benefit of being free.
American wines labeled claret have appeared off and on for decades, but now that the term has been de-legalized, only a few lucky wineries may continue to use it – if they conform to “the trade understanding of such class and type.”
I take this to mean that a domestic claret should be restricted to Bordeaux-only grapes. Fair enough, and most of the bottles I’ve tasted go so far as to list the blend on the back label.
Even so, clarets come in a wide variety of styles, from fairly light and fruity to “serious” cabernet-centric blends. The best examples are nicely structured, and show some of the depth and texture of real French bordeaux.
A search of the Wine Enthusiast database turned up some 90 reviews for wines labeled claret. They come from all corners of the wine world: Australia, Chile, Spain, Missouri, New England, Oregon and Virginia.
But most by far are from California and Washington, and they cost anywhere from $10 to $125 a bottle.
From California, the best examples over the years have been the Francis Coppola Diamond Series (a fine value), the Newton (a little pricier, but reliably first-rate), and high-end versions from Pride Mountain and Robert Foley.
Here in Washington, Matthews Estates has been making a claret since 2000. Matt Loso, who made the first few vintages before departing the winery, defined his claret as expressing “youthful drinkability, fruit driven and built at a price to attract any consumer to enjoy maybe for the first time.”
In 2001, Spokane’s Robert Karl winery began making a claret, and it remains a personal favorite. Owner Rebecca Gunselman explains that “a significant mantra of our business plan is tradition,” including how the winery labels its wine and how it makes its wine with a focus on “terroir,” a French word that refers to the special characteristics that a specific landscape contributes to winemaking.
“Red wine wasn’t exciting enough,” she adds, “and a fanciful name seemed too much for our new workhorse. No one could pronounce Meritage. Although claret was seldom used, it had a traditional ring.”
Personally, I like the word, and I’ve not seen one that represents true Bordeaux blends that I like as well.
I’ve had tasty clarets from a number of Northwest wineries, especially Oregon’s Abacela, Walla Walla’s Basel Cellars and Nicholas Cole. Grab a bottle from any of them and I think you’ll be happy.
The current release of Robert Karl Claret is the 2007, and retails for around $20. It uses Horse Heaven Hills fruit exclusively, and includes all five Bordeaux grapes. Dusty, rich and smooth, it balances cherry pie fruit with creamy barrel flavors of mocha and caramel.
The alcohol is just 13.5 percent, the tannins fine-grained. Enjoy it now or cellar it for another eight to 10 years.
Paul Gregutt is a freelance wine writer based in Seattle. His column appears in The Spokesman-Review on the last Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.paulgregutt.com for Gregutt’s blog and his latest tasting notes.