Behind the vague name claret, some good Northwest wines
While a lot of generic terms for wine blends are still floating around, causing confusion about just what they mean, a few things are clear: Meritage is now a trademarked term for a reserve-quality Bordeaux blend, and a winery must pay to use the name. And while claret remains one of the broader terms for the same thing, a few wineries have consistently turned out good wines under that name. Among those wineries are many in the Northwest, including Robert Karl, Abacela, Basel Cellars, Cuillin Hills, Gilbert Cellars and Nicholas Cole.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Robert Karl 2007 Claret; $20
All Horse Heaven Hills fruit goes into this exceptional five-grape blend. Dusty, rich and smooth, it balances cherry-pie fruit with 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. (Distributed by Vehrs)
NEW WORLD wineries making blended red wines have a number of options for labeling, which, inevitably, leads to confusion. If one of the grapes accounts for at least 75 percent of the blend, it can stand as the name of the wine. If not, or if the blend is not limited to Bordeaux grapes, a proprietary name is often used.
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 term 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 blend. Meritage is now trademarked; a winery must pay to use the term on a wine label.
On the other hand, there is claret, a perfectly fine word that essentially means the same thing — plus, it is free. 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 Bordeaux, shipped in casks to British wine merchants, who bottled them under their own labels.
American wines labeled claret have appeared off and on for decades, but the term was unregulated until two years ago, when it was slipped into a "Standards of Identity" agreement between the U.S. and the European Union. Along with claret, 16 other semi-generic wine names are covered under this new agreement: Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Chianti, Hock, Malaga, Marsala, Madeira, Moselle, Port, Retsina, Rhine wine, Sauterne, Haut Sauterne, Sherry and Tokay. A "grandfather" provision allows wineries already using the term claret to continue to do so, but it must now conform to "the trade understanding of such class and type."
Like you, I'm scratching my head, but I take this to mean that a domestic claret should be restricted to Bordeaux-only grapes. Most of the bottles I've tasted list the blend on the back label. Blend aside, clarets come in a wide variety of styles, from fairly light and fruity to "serious" cabernet-centric blends. The best examples are well-structured, with more of the depth and texture of French Bordeaux.
A search of the Wine Enthusiast database turns 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 usually 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 my personal favorite. Owner Rebecca Gunselman explains that "a significant mantra of our business plan is tradition — traditional winemaking (with a focus on terroir), traditional label design, etc. Red Wine wasn't exciting enough; a fanciful name seemed too much for our new workhorse; and no one could pronounce Meritage. Although claret was seldom used, it had a traditional ring."
Other Northwest clarets I have enjoyed have come from Abacela, Basel Cellars, Cuillin Hills, Gilbert Cellars and Nicholas Cole.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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