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Clairet: A Darker Shade of Pale
By W. Blake Gray
Oct 15, 2013
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Faced with an ocean of wine to sell, Bordeaux has come up with a new category.

"Clairet" is like a dark rosé, in which the juice is left on the skin for 24 to 48 hours longer than ordinary French rosés to extract more color and a little tannin. 

"I think Clairet is outstanding," says Régis Chaigne, owner and winemaker of Château Ballan-Larquette.  "It's different from what you can taste elsewhere.  It's very easy to drink with food.  It's fruity.  It has the deep color.  It's very modern."

Clairet is an intriguing idea on a number of levels, both for production and marketing.  But it does confront different challenges on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

In France, where people expect rosés to be light in both color and flavor, it's somewhere in between a red wine and a rosé.  Bordeaux vintners will have to teach French consumers to fit it into their lifestyle.

In the US, most people would consider a Clairet to be a rosé, as plenty of the rosé wines made here are the same hue.  Americans generally like darker, heavier wines than the French, and that applies to rosés as well.  The US might just be waiting to fall in love with this wine.

"Spec's buyer in Texas liked it and ordered a lot of it," says Julia Gazaniol, export manager for Château de Parenchère, where Clairet now makes up nearly a quarter of the production.  "It's more of a wine (than a rosé).  For people who don't like having a red wine when it's hot, it's bigger in the mouth for people who don't think rosé is a real wine."

The problem is that the classification-loving French can't call a "Clairet" a "rosé" on the label, and that's a bigger hurdle than it seems in the US, where mass-market sales are handled by distributors who don't care as much about what they sell as what margins they make on it.  Niche products like orange wines exist, but the Bordelais aren't looking for a niche product; they're looking to create the next Moscato, albeit at a higher price point, certainly over $10 a bottle.  And of course that's another hurdle as well.

American consumers might embrace Clairets if and when they see them, but getting the bottles past distributors and retailers onto store shelves is the challenge.

Chaigne says one major California chain store's buyer loved his winery's Clairet, but when told it couldn't be labeled as rosé, he ordered the rosé instead.

"It's two different things, and the rules are different," Chaigne says.  "Nobody knows Clairet."

The Bordelais are well motivated to teach them.

While Bordeaux first-growths continue to feature prominently in auctions and other rarified circumstances, entry-level Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur wines that make up the majority of the region's output have in many countries lost much of the relevance they had 30 years ago, as a new generation of consumers explores wines from more exotic locations.

But Bordeaux has a lot of wine to sell, every year, even in a nightmarish vintage like 2013, when yields might be down more than 30%. 

Bordeaux alone makes more wine than all of California, according to the Planet Bordeaux group.  Of this ocean of wine, 52% is Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur.  There are 5367 producers in the region, most of them small family businesses.

And while the popular impression, based on the expensive image-leader Left Bank wines, is that Bordeaux is Cabernet country, the fact is that there's more Merlot planted there than anything else.  You may have read something about Merlot being a more difficult sell to young consumers in recent years.  You can see how this is a problem.

It's also an uncomfortable fact that this ocean of wine -- about as much as from all of Australia -- is not all entirely stellar.  For decades, before modern viticulture and winemaking spread around the planet, consumers in France and elsewhere drank cheap, ordinary Bordeaux wines on weeknights because there weren't a lot of options.  Now those same farmers are competing on supermarket shelves with South Africa and Chile and Argentina, and Eastern Europe is just entering the game.  Below-average red wines won't cut it anymore just because they're from Bordeaux.

The plan is to convert many of the vines being used for red wine production to Clairet; actually to farm them that way, rather than to make the wine by saignée.  This means Clairets will be made not only from Merlot, but also from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  And it's possible that the best way to make something not-quite-red out of these wines is to make something a little darker and riper that reduces those grapes' inherent herbaceousness. 

For my personal taste, they're, well, they're what a lot of Americans want in a rosé.  It's easy to imagine people drinking them chilled with barbecue on a hot summer day.  Americans have never really embraced chilling light red wines like Beaujolais.  Calling these wines something different, something less than red, means they come with instructions on how to use them.

"To my mind, if you want to have taste in the wine, you have to extract," Chaigne says.  "If you want to extract, you have to have color."

For you baby boomers, it's a darker shade of pale.