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The question

I came across an old recipe that advised serving the dish with “a good claret.” What is that?

The answer

I’m guessing it was a British cookbook, because claret is a British nickname for red Bordeaux wine.

It’s an Anglo corruption of clairet, which basically means “clear” or “pale-coloured.” This may seem strange given that red Bordeaux wines, made mainly with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, tend to be fairly dark, certainly in comparison with, say, Burgundy and most Loire Valley reds. But deep purple was not always Bordeaux’s signature. In the Middle Ages, when the term claret likely originated, the predominant shade of Bordeaux wines popular in England (the big export market) was much lighter, more comparable to rosé or light Beaujolais. And the flavour was very light as well.

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Veteran wine writer Hugh Johnson had this to say about it in his book The Story of Wine: “… from the outset it seems almost certain that very light red or rosé was the best wine (apart from white) that Bordeaux had to offer – or at least that it suited English taste, and the demands of the voyage to England.”

Imagine that. The most venerated wine region in the world built its early global reputation on a style of wine entirely different from that for which it is celebrated today. (In other words, great terroir for rosé eventually morphed into great terroir for full-bodied, tannic reds – all because of a change in consumer preferences, not because the soil changed.)

Not only were the red wines likely too bitter for British palates of old and lacking in sufficient acid freshness to survive the sailing trip, they were not even made from cabernet sauvignon or merlot. It would take a couple of hundred years before cabernet sauvignon and merlot would surface, genetically speaking, and become Bordeaux signatures.

And yet, despite the shift in colour from light to dark, many British wine lovers cling to the term claret. Most, I’d venture to guess, have never sampled an actual Bordeaux rosé, which – by the way – you can still find from time to time if you try very, very hard.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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