What is Claret Wine? Inside The British Love For French Wine

Claret wine is a popular British term used by British wine lovers and the British wine trade. This traditional wine term refers to a wide variety of Bordeaux-style blend red wine from the Bordeaux region of France.

Claret wine is a British term for red Bordeaux wine.

Claret Wine: When Did The People Start Using It?

For fun, let’s take a look at the definition of claret from the Oxford English Dictionary:

“A name originally given (like French vin clairet) to wines of yellowish or light red colour, as distinguished alike from ‘red wine’ and ‘white wine’; the contrast with the former ceased about 1600, and it was apparently then used for red wines generally, in which sense it is still, or was recently, dialect (cf. also 3). Now applied to the red wines imported from Bordeaux, generally mixed with Benicarlo or some full-bodied French wine.”

Note that “claret wine” is often considered a slang term rather than an official term used by wine experts. Since the term for this kind of beautiful wine has a long history linked to the Kings of England, it has become quite popular. Over time, the French term changed to become claret wine. In terms of distribution of wine and wine sales, you’re likely to see claret wine in Britain but not elsewhere (i.e. Napa Valley is unlikely to use this wine term).

As a wine description, the term “claret wine” dates back to at least the 1500s. The definition above emphasizes two key qualities for claret wine: colour and geographic origin (i.e. the production of claret wine only comes from Bordeaux). This type of wine is typically imported from Bordeaux as a blend of red wines. In other words, claret wine is a British term that refers to blend of red wine from the entire wine region. Now you know the basics; you can keep up with your wine geek friends and understand what wine writer means when they use this term in an article.

Claret Wine: How Does It Taste?

Describing the taste of an entire category of wine is one of the most challenging wine questions. If you want to become the resident wine expert in your household, it is a fun question to explore.

Let’s look at some of the qualities of these flavourful wines commonly associated with the term claret.

  • Red Wine. There are never white grapes (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc) in claret. Instead, the term Claret refers to a specific blend of red wine grapes. If you’re more interested in white wines, see my post on the top French white wines
  • British Term. The term Claret is a British term. The closest American term equivalent would be something like “Bordeaux style red wine blend.” It is sometimes used in wine publications like Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. 
  • Sweet Wines vs Dry Wines. Claret wines are typically made in a dry style. For those who prefer sweet wines, look for a Bordeaux blanc such as Sauternes. Note that sweet wines are also called dessert wines – so look for both terms if you are shopping for a bottle. 
  • Fruit Flavor: Black currant, plums, and other dark fruit flavors are familiar. Claret wine is a great choice if you enjoy dark fruit in your glass.
  • Secondary Flavors: Mineral qualities like wet gravel and lead are typical.
  • Dominant Grape: The dominant grape variety in claret wine varies. It is typically Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Other French grapes commonly used in Bordeaux include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.
  • Contrast Vs Varietal Wines. In the US and Canada, many wine lovers are used to “varietal wines” – a bottle of wine made from a single wine grape. Claret wine is different – average vintages typically involve several varieties of grapes. This blend approach is one of the reasons why claret wine has such a consistent flavor.

Note that some wine merchants use an alternative term for claret wine such as “Bordeaux-inspired wines” to describe wines made in other countries that take inspiration from Bordeaux’s grapes, use a similar methods and grapes and wine making process.

Note that expensive wines from the region will have a different taste, especially if they are older. The fruit notes are likely to be far less. Curious to learn more about the world’s most expensive wines (including one bottle that was sunk by a submarine)? Read this post: The Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.

Claret Wine: The Legacy of A Royal Marriage?

Model showing what Eleanor of Aquitaine, duchess and queen of England and France, might have looked like.

The blend of grape varieties we know as Claret is linked to a famous royal marriage. In 1151, King Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor brought one of the greatest dowries of all time. Much of modern France, including Bordeaux and La Rochelle, were now becoming English. As a result, the British wine trade now had much easier access to Bordeaux wines. Since the Kings of England developed a decade for this type of French wine, wine consumption shifted to strongly emphasize claret.

Thanks to Decanter for helping with the history.

The rise of claret wine in the UK has not been constant over time. In 1800s England, it was difficult to import French wines into country due to the wars with France. To solve this wine crisis, some wine merchants started to shift wine consumption to to Portugal such as port wine.  Through many wars and political changes, England eventually lost all claim to France.

However, there are still strong cultural and social links across the Channel. A strong passion for Bordeaux-style red wines continues to be significant today. According to Statista, French wines were the top wines imported into the UK from 2017 to 2020 by value. In addition to France, Italy, New Zealand, and Spain are significant contributors to the British wine trade. Major industry publications like Wine Spectator continue to review and praise Cabernet-based wines from Bordeaux which helps to maintain their high profile.

Is Claret Wine The Same As Bordeaux?

The short answer is that these ideas are related yet distinct. Claret refers specifically to a Bordeaux-style blend of red wine imported from France to the UK. In contrast, Bordeaux is a vast wine region on the Atlantic coast of France. In addition to its famous blended wines, 21st-century wine lovers know many other excellent bottles of wine made in Bordeaux. 

For example, Bordeaux produces excellent white wines (e.g., Sauvignon Blanc) and the region’s white wines are well known. If you’ve never tried it, picking up a bottle of Bordeaux Blanc is well worth the experience. Since white grapes in Bordeaux are less well known, these white wines can be less expensive. White Bordeaux are well worth trying but they are not the focus on this post. 

To summarize, all claret wine is from Bordeaux, but not all Bordeaux-style wine is claret. Notably, you are unlikely to see the phrase “claret wine” or something like that on the wine label with French wines. The reason is simple – “claret” is a British term and French wine labels usually focus on French wine terms like “Vins De Bordeaux.” Further, some wine producers that use the same blend of grapes which makes it more difficult for a wine writer to distinguish between each bottle.

Instead, the wine label of French wines emphasizes geography. To learn more about French wine geography, read this short guide to French wine regions or French white wines. To learn about French wines in-depth, I recommend the audio course “The Everyday Guide To Wines of France” (read my full review).

Is Claret Wine Made Outside of France?

This is a bit of a tricky question to ask. The answer will depend on who you ask: people in the wine industry, a wine snob, or your wine geek friends. Historically, claret wine is particular to a region: the Bordeaux wine region. That said, the science of winemaking is an international industry. As a result, winemakers in other countries take inspiration and create their own Bordeaux-style blend.

Outside of France, some in the wine industry might use the term “Bordeaux style” to refer to a specific blend. By tradition, the Bordeaux style blend includes the following wine grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot. Few bottles of wine have every single grape variety in every bottle. More commonly, France and other regions typically blend two or three grape varieties and blend them in the oak barrels.

Claret Style Wine From Calfornia

American wine producers have started to use the term “claret wine” on the wine label. Francis Ford Coppola’s wine company makes the “Diamond Collection Claret,” (i.e., Coppola Claret) made from grapes grown in California and Oregon. With 13.9% alcohol content, the wine is based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. The 2015 and 2014 vintages have particular high reviews if you can track down a bottle. Usually, I’m not a big fan of the celebrity-owned winery trend. The Coppola Diamond Collection and other wines from the wine producer are different. The wine producer has an outstanding wine making process and makes excellent wines. 

Claret style wine made in the USA is also relatively affordable. The Coppola Diamond Collection is also affordably priced with wines offered between $25 to $60 per bottle. In comparison, Coppola Diamond Claret usually sells for less than $50 per bottle. You probably wouldn’t see the Coppola collection of wine listed in a Bordeaux wine guide, but these American wines are excellent.

In the United States, picking up a bottle of the Coppola Diamond Collection is an excellent way to experience how Bordeaux-style wine-making methods have spread far and wide. That said, look at wine labels that state “Coppola Diamond Claret” with a critical eye. The traditional definition of claret wine only comes from France. That said, other wine producers may have similar wine styles to Bordeaux.

Coppola is just one example of American wine inspired by claret wine. In fact, Wine Spectator posed the question “Are most California Cabernets “clarets”?” a few years ago.  If you use the slang term loosely, you could define the entire wine region of California as producing something like claret. However, the differences in wine making processes, climate and wine styles means that differences will endure between Bordeaux and other areas.

Learn More About The Finest Vineyards

Planning a wine trip is a fun way to learn more about the family tradition and finest vineyards firsthand. For tips on how to plan your next wine trip, use these five steps to plan your wine tasting trip. If you’re not quite right to travel, there’s another option. You can travel in your mind by reading some classic wine fiction like “Sideways” or “A Gentleman in Moscow.”

What is Claret Wine? Inside The British Love For French Wine

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