Clairet : Not Quite Rosé, Not Quite Red but Quite Enjoyable

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A bottle of Bordeaux Clairet

Rosé wine consumption (and therefore production) has increased tremendously over the last 10 years everywhere in the world. There are multiple reasons for that; based on fruitiness and acidity it’s an easy-to-approach wine; it pairs extremely well with a lot of food and appetizers; it’s a perfect fresh drink to share with friends on a hot summer evening; some of the most beautiful and well-designed bottles are bottles of rosé etc…

France (and most of its regions) has always been a rosé-producing country. However, this recent passion for rosé is essentially the result of Provence wineries, the world’s leading region in rosé making. A rosé from Provence is very pale and salmon colored as opposed to the much more traditional pink, light red French rosé. It’s less vinous and has no tanin which makes it a much easier wine to taste. It is also a dry wine when a lot of rosés from other areas are sweeter. Finally, this commercial success is the result of brilliant marketing based on new world wines. Far away from the classical French wine bottles and their châteaux and appellations, Provence bottles are more colored and modern with fun labels and nice packaging; thus appealing to millenials.

Today, in a tough economic climate, some regions are trying to increase their market share by copying all of the above. One of them is Bordeaux. Known for its red and white wines, Bordeaux is extremely active in trying to produce and sell more rosé. When I was in wine school there, we had to participate in a contest with other schools. Our goal was to elaborate a marketing and business plan that would promote the image of “Bordeaux rosé” and generate more sales.

Here is the thing, there are two kinds of rosé in Bordeaux : the Provence kind with a pale color which is called rosé, and a darker and more powerful version, closer to a red wine, called Clairet. Clairet is a unique wine, only produced in Bordeaux and is particularly unknown. Its name comes from the word “Claret”, which is how English people used to call the red wine imported from Bordeaux, that was  famous in England in the 1700’s. At that time, Bordeaux red wine wasn’t as dark and structured as it is now, it was instead a lighter wine with a light red color.

Currently, Bordeaux does not communicate on Clairet whatsoever and yet spends a lot of time and money communicating on its light colored rosé. Business wise, it makes sense and sales did increase but one problem remains: I have yet to taste a very good Bordeaux rosé. On the other hand, some Clairet are greatly enjoyable and they have a clear and unique identity.

I remember having an honest conversation with a passionate and very talented vine-grower about this. He is a long time producer of Clairet and decided a few years ago to make some rosé. The quality wasn’t there and his regular customers appreciated his Clairet far more. To him, Bordeaux is simply not the right place to make a good, pale-colored rosé. I won’t get into much detail but he mentioned multiple winemaking issues (such as temperature control) as well as grape and climate problems. Bordeaux’s number one grape, Merlot, is not the best fit (on most terroirs) to make a quality rosé. Cabernet-Franc or even Malbec would be much better. A good rosé is a balance between aromas, alcohol and intensity. Merlots, especially with global warming, have a high-percentage of alcohol and lack acidity and freshness for a good rosé.

Also, some grapes on certain plots having trouble to mature because of a lack of sun and warmth are often used to make a Clairet, which is basically a much lighter red wine with more acidity.

As a conclusion, I suggest rosé lovers to taste Clairet, which remains unknown to most people. Obviously, not all of them are good (some of them are actually pretty bad) but some small vine-growers do a very good job. As usual, tasting is the best thing to do, maybe you’ll be luckier than me and find a good Bordeaux rosé. However, if you’re in the mood for a light colored rosé, I suggest to stick to Provence or even Languedoc-Roussillon which makes some very nice rosés as well (very similar climate).

Wine/Food Pairing Idea : A Clairet will pair well with tapas, grilled meats and barbecues, most fish, pizza, and a strawberry pie.

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