The poet Keats said of ‘claret’ that it did not, like other wines, “assault the cerebral apartments,” “but rather walks like Aladdin about his enchanted palace, so gently you do not feel his step.”

A century and two-thirds later, advertising genius David Ogilvy recommended helping along the creative process by “drinking a half-pint of claret.”

Around the same time (or at least within a decade or two), a snobbish Basil Fawlty (played by John Cleese) remarked to one of the guests at his Fawlty Towers hotel:

“I can certainly see that you know your wine. Most of the guests who stay here wouldn’t know the difference between Bordeaux and claret.”

The joke being that claret and Bordeaux are the same thing.

Or are they?

And what is claret anyway?

More on that in a moment. But first… red wine and raw fish?

This week, Julien takes us through one of the most delicate and complex wine and food pairings… including flavor profiles to look for… specific varietal suggestions… and, for you red wine lovers, how to pair sushi with a red (it’s possible!)…

Aladdin’s Wine (Continued)

By the time Ogilvy and Cleese were talking about claret, the term was already on the decline, on its way to oblivion.

At the time of Keats’ birth, however, many an 18th century gentleman might end the day with his white stockings resting on an ottoman and a small glass of claret in his hand. (Glasses back then were only slightly larger than a modern shot glass – 66ml to 70ml – compared to the 450 ml glasses commonly used today.)

Originally, claret was simply another name for Bordeaux. However, the Bordeaux that existed at the time the term came about (somewhere between the 12th and 17th century), was unlike the Bordeaux of today.

The name comes from the French word claire, which means clear. Bordeaux was once a light red wine, with a translucent ruby body. Maceration time was much shorter back then (days rather than weeks or months) and wines weren’t meant to keep more than one to two years. The same is true of many wines from the pre-modern era. With a few exceptions, the “big red” is largely an invention of post-1960s winemaking. Even 35 years ago, says critic Jancis Robinson, “wines that naturally reached more than 14% alcohol were rare, but now it is not uncommon to see alcohol levels of more than 16% cited on labels.”

Thus claret – i.e. Bordeaux – was a light, lower alcohol wine meant to be quaffed rather than studiously sniffed at with pen and paper at hand.

The people most interested in doing the quaffing were the English. While there is disagreement about when the term claret came into widespread use, the popularity of Bordeaux wines among the English is said to have begun in the 12th century when the English King Henry II married the French Duchess Aliénor d’Aquitaine (after the latter’s marriage to the French King Louis VII was annulled).

(Henry and Aliénor’s marriage didn’t fare much better. Henry had Aliénor imprisoned after she encouraged their sons – including Richard the Lionheart – to rebel against him.)

By the 14th century, the trade in claret was well established.

With Bordeaux’s transition to a heavier style (starting in the 1700s and ramping up in the 20th century) claret as it had been known largely disappeared. There remains in Bordeaux a type of wine called clairet (note the spelling), which we would describe as a rosado, halfway between rosé and full red. It is rare and we struggled to find a bottle in time for this issue (one is on the way now – more to follow there). In California, some winemakers call their Bordeaux blends claret though that trend is unlikely to expand as the term was banned in the US – along with Champagne and Chianti – as part of a 2006 trade deal with the European Union (older CA clarets have been grandfathered in, including one from Coppola wines).

With heavier styles continuing to dominate the industry, we are unlikely to see a return of the classic claret style in Bordeaux any time soon. However, all trends die out sooner or later. Who knows? Twenty years from now, we might receive a case of Bordeaux and drink them – in a small 70 ml glass of course – as quickly as we might a Beaujolais.

A bientôt,

The Wine Explorer

Bonner Private Wine Partnership