What Is Claret? The Question That Sparked A Tasty Adventure in Bordeaux

We’ve been watching British television and one of our favorite shows is “Grand Designs.”  The host, Kevin McCloud, kept referring to “claret.”  Being idiot Americans, we had no idea what sort of beverage it was (other than it was a deep purplish-red color).  Thanks to the magic of the internet, we learned it is “a red wine from Bordeaux, or wine of a similar character made elsewhere” (according to Merriam-Webster).  After that moment – and visiting France’s other wine regions (BurgundyCotes du RhoneAlsace, Champagne) – I wanted to go see what could make stoic Brits wax rhapsodic about this wine.  Luckily, it was pretty easy to convince Wildcat and Hokie to take an girl’s road trip.

A few hours into our trip, they might have started to regret it.  To get to Bordeaux from Geneva, you have to drive across all of France to the Atlantic.  We broke down in the middle of nowhere on our way (for more, check out their accounts here and here).  We arrived in Bordeaux just in time to get a good night’s sleep so that we could begin our “education” bright and early the next day.

Bordeaux is larger and more complex than France’s other wine regions.  It has  an astounding variety of different appellations (recognized types that correspond to demarcated zones that were established in 1855 by Napolean III) in part because the region is large.  It is also topographically and climatically diverse.  It’s soils are geologically complex and vary significantly from one appellation to the next.  Its location on the Atlantic coast and on rivers further inland (the Gironde River and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne) creates dramatically different weather conditions across the region.

Bordeaux wines are all about blending.  Part science, part art, the results are pure magic.  The grapes in the blends should complement each other and make a complex, interesting, balanced and harmonious blend.  The goal is to make the blended wine better than the individual grapes that contribute to it.  In other words, the whole (the blended wine) should be more than the sum of its parts (the individual grapes).

The grapes most commonly used in blending Bordeaux wines are: MerlotCabernet Sauvignon and  Cabernet Franc.  The Merlot grapes give the wine color, roundness and suppleness.  The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes provide the tannins, the wine’s backbone and structure.  In young wines, it is very aromatic and provides increasing complexity as it ages.  The Cabernet Franc grapes add a gentleness, a counterpoint to the Sauvignon.

If you haven’t already guessed from the definition of “claret,” most of Bordeaux’s wines are red (around 85%).  Bordeaux is the world’s number one producer of both Cabernet and Merlot grape varieties.  Sante!

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