At the Water’s Edge

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You don’t hear the word “claret” very often these days, except in the few traditional wine shops that still survive in Britain. It’s used to describe virtually any red wine from the Bordeaux region of France. Oddly enough, it is always pronounced the English way to rhyme with “garret” and never pronounced in the French manner. Indeed, the French never use the word. In the fifteenth century, Bordeaux wine was very much lighter in colour than it is today and it was known as clairet, meaning “pale”. In Britain, it became Anglicized to “claret” and the word stuck. One of Britain’s oldest established wine merchants Berry Bros and Rudd sell a wine called Good Ordinary Claret which is a lot better than it sounds. It’s one of the company’s best-selling products.

My first encounter with the word “claret” was in the form of wine gums, not there was any wine in them of course. When I was a small boy, you could find wine gums in almost every confectionary shop. They were colourful, sweet and chewy and were not known for their contribution to dental health. They came in several shapes and colours and were labelled after different kinds of wine. I liked the ones called “claret”, which had a kind of fake strawberry flavour. There was also one called “hock”, another interesting but long-defunct word. It was once used to mean white wines from Germany and especially from the Rhine. It probably derived from the town of Hochheim-am-Main, which would have been too great a linguistic challenge for most eighteenth-century Brits. Anyway, perhaps I thought that eating wine gums would give me an air of suave sophistication. The other kids, who preferred aniseed balls and enormous gobstoppers, probably thought I was a poncey little prat.

Claude-Joseph Vernet: The Port of Bordeaux (1758)Claude-Joseph Vernet: The Port of Bordeaux (1758)

The Bordeaux region of France covers the whole area of the Gironde department, with a total vineyard area of over four hundred square miles – the largest wine growing area in the country. The vine was introduced by the Romans, probably sometime during the first century as the Roman Empire spread its power and influence over Western Europe. Wine, including some of the best wines in the world has been produced in the region ever since.

Red Bordeaux is nearly always made from a blend of grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot but sometimes the lesser known Petit Verdot and Malbec are also added. There are more than eight thousand wine producers in Bordeaux and many of them use the name “Château” on the label. This doesn’t imply that the wines are made in castles. Far from it. Some châteaux are not much more than farmhouses. Some don’t exist at all because they are merely trade-names, nearly always used by wine cooperatives to add a bit of gravitas to the label.

Bordeaux wines can range from the fairly cheap to the staggeringly expensive. Some of the top names, such Ch. Lafite Rothschild, Ch. Margaux and Ch. Latour reach astronomical prices. A case of Ch. Lafite Rothschild for example can set you back thousands of dollars. Fortunately you can buy decent Bordeaux for considerably less and you won’t go far wrong with the two wines this week.

Ch. Cazette 2011 (red), France (Bt. 619 @ Foodland)

This wine is rather elegant and refined – just what Bordeaux should be, in fact. Unlike many New World reds, Bordeaux wines tend to be more restrained on the palate. They’re more about elegance and balance rather than over-the-top fruitiness and excess and they veer more towards grown-up sophistication rather than playfulness and novelty.

This wine is a lovely, intense purplish-red with those familiar “legs” that form in the glass as you swirl the wine around. It’s produced from a blend of 70% Merlot and 15% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, though it took me ages to find out, because Bordeaux wine producers rarely reveal this sort of information. Predictably, the Merlot qualities tend to dominate and bring attractive concentrated woodland aromas of blackberries, plums and herbs with a touch of vanilla and minerals. It has an exceptionally soft mouth-feel with flavours of rich dark berries. There’s an attractive dash of acidity too, with a good framework of firm chewy tannins. This wine won a Bronze medal at the Bordeaux Wine Awards (Concours de Bordeaux) which for the last sixty years has been one of the most important events in the Bordeaux wine industry.  There’s an excellent finish too; clean, dry and herby with touches of fruit and fine tannins.

Ch. Les Tuileries, 2010 (red), France. (Bt. 605 @ Foodland)

There are several completely different Bordeaux wines that go under the name of Château Les Tuileries but this is a Foodland exclusive and so you won’t find it on sale anywhere else. Bright in the glass with purple hues, this has a rather beguiling “come-and-get-me” floral aroma of strawberries and bramble fruit. It has a seductive mouth-feel with very soft, almost imperceptible tannins. If anything, the tannin comes out best on the long and pleasing woody finish making this wine (at just 12.5% alcohol) quite an easy drinker. To my mind, both these two wines are well-made and typical everyday Bordeaux reds. They need quite a bit of air-contact to open them up, especially the first one. Half an hour or so should do the trick. You’ll be rewarded for your patience.

So, which to choose? If you can fork out Bt 1,200 without having to sell the cat, then buy them both and decide for yourself. But I’ll make it easier. If you enjoy firm, rather dry wines with a typically French tannic, woody quality, try the Château Cazette. But if you prefer soft, easy-drinkers, then I think you’ll enjoy the Château les Tuileries. Incidentally, while typing up the notes for the second wine, my ever-helpful Microsoft spelling-checker suggested “Château Les Toiletries”. And by the way, if you are still trying to work out the significance of the title this week, it just means “Bordeaux”.