Wednesday 23 March 2011

Claret or Bordeaux? – Chateau Tour de Barbereau

There are many individual words which I associate with wine. My personal favourite is “more”.
However, the word at the heart of this particular post is one which resonates with history, with class, with Englishness – it is “claret”.
The first piece of wine knowledge that a young Englishman must acquire is that in the universities, clubs and dining rooms to which he should aspire, red Bordeaux wine is commonly called claret. He must learn this because ordering mature claret may, if he enjoys the fruits of success, become a common occurrence. But the word “claret” is not actually present on the label of a good Bordeaux. It is something he is expected to know.  
(“Educated the expensive way,” sang Blur, “He knows his claret from his Beaujolais” – not, you may note, his Bordeaux from his Beaujolais. James Bond unveiled the assassin Wint in Diamonds are Forever, simply because the man didn’t know that Mouton-Rothschild is a claret. Even CJ refers to red Bordeaux as claret, and he believes that a gentleman is a chap who removes the plates from a sink before he pees in it.)
Indeed, a claret which does describe itself as claret on its label is usually rubbish. This is because the term has been adopted as a marketing device for flogging really crap Bordeaux to unsuspecting folk. The very word “claret” conjures up Pall Mall clubs, leather armchairs and cigars, so it gets stuck on the label of grotty Bordeaux in the hope of luring arrivistes.  
The only exception to this rule is Club Claret (or House Claret), where the character of the club (or house) is such that their selection of a Bordeaux provides an imprimatur of excellence.  I can personally vouch for the Royal Automobile Club Claret and, thanks to my presumptive father-in-law, the Travellers Club Claret; whereas Asda Claret is virtually a contradiction in terms.
(St James’s claret is therefore perfectly acceptable, as one would expect in the cradle of gentlemen’s clubs. St Francis Claret, however, is a good example of something which is not a claret at all   It comes from Sonoma County, California which was not in Bordeaux the last time I looked. And claret is not, as their website bizarrely suggests, a varietal. We must forgive them, because they are Californian, but still.)
Hence the very word claret is quintessentially English, and mature claret – encompassing our national love of time past – is a concept to which most English gentlemen (possibly even CJ) aspire. And our main aspiration is to simply be able to afford it. For while the price of decent Bordeaux climbs ever upwards, one of the few characteristics CJ and I share with the gentry is impecuniousness.
So when a traditional English wine merchant offers a “limited parcel of mature claret” at an absurdly affordable price, we are summoned by bells in all departments – sociological, eonological and fiscal.
There’s no doubt that Chateau Tour de Barbereau has all the elements of a traditional claret. For a start, it’s got the script lettering and drypoint illustration on its label which means that someone like CJ can feel confident putting it on their table. It’s been mis en bouteille au chateau, in the Gironde, so it’s not just some blend of generic Bordeaux leftovers. And it’s got a year – 2006 – which could suggest maturity.
Had we but world enough and time, I could launch into a whole thing about Bordeaux vintages, but frankly we haven’t; I’ve got a 5-year-old claret for under £6, and all we really need to know is – drinkable, or not?
Well. The nose is great; rich, and blackcurranty. That fruit comes through in the mouth too, followed by a good, tannic backbone. It leaves that classic Bordeaux dryness on the palate as it goes, and has a reasonable finish. One to sip and savour, you think.
But beware; it fades in the glass. Ultimately this is a wine without real depth, and by the end of an evening the fruits have gone and only those dry tannins really hang on. Shared amongst friends with a large glass each, great – but settle in for an evening with a bottle and a book, and it creeps quietly away from you into the night like a guilty party.
To get any wine which merits the description “mature claret” for less than £6 is an achievement. But as we’ve seen, that’s a term which resonates with expectations. So tell guests that “it needs drinking up”. You will simultaneously excuse its fading glory; hint at a vast and difficult to manage cellar; and suggest a knowledge of Bordeaux vintages. It’s all in the words.


  1. Hee hee hee. We pick on California as well on the eastern side of the States. But they are lovable scamps, most of 'em.

    Given 300 years under English rule, Bordeaux should certainly have a trademark British name to go with it.

    What I was taught is that "claret" comes from "clairette", which means "pale" or something like that in French. Supposedly, the Bordelais would cut their deep red wine with water to create a lighter-colored wine that would be shipped to England. The name was eventually Anglicized to "claret", the watering-down got cleaned up, and the rest is history.

    Or something like that. Cheers!

  2. Californians, eh? Silly boobs. You Brits wouldn't have a palate if we gave it to you (with all the other things we've given you over the last 250 years, including two ass-kickings and your salvation from the Hun not once, but twice).

    Feel sorry for the Californians when their state alone can't afford to purchase your little Muslim island for a song.

  3. Anonymous... what a pathetically childish and reactionary comment to make (a not uncommonly encountered attitude in our American 'friends'). If you and others of your sort are the standard-bearers for all Californians, it's easy to see why they're the subject of well-deserved derision. Do try and get over the chip you people have on your shoulders about only having a few hundred years of history and no class, will you? It gets rather boring. Little hissy-fits like yours are the reason why despite being 'the world's only superpower', most of the world looks down on you. It's not always about whose is bigger. Oh, and you Yanks make sure to keep an eye out for the Chinese, will you? They're coming up fast.

  4. Don't knock the Californians, there is nothing wrong with cheap wine and even cheaper women.


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