There’s a perception that claret and port are commonly consumed by ageing, ruddy-faced gents of a certain disposition and with the emergence of a plethora of ‘trendy new’ wines, sometimes these cellar masterpieces feel like they’re falling out of fashion.
Over the past decade or so, both Bordeaux producers and Port producers alike accepted that in order to appeal to younger drinkers, they needed to modernise their wine styles tailoring them more towards casual dining and generally make them more accessible in their youth, without losing their provenance. Consequently, this approach has helped them to reach new audiences and our centuries-old love affair for these wines continues…
What Is Claret?
‘Claret’ is a term that’s actually protected under EU law and refers to any red wine that carries the Bordeaux appellation (the term ‘appellation’ legally defines where the grapes for any given wine are grown).
It’s widely thought that the word ‘claret’ is an anglicisation of the French word Clairet, a catch-all term to describe the light and very pale wines from Bordeaux during the Middle Ages. The French term itself is thought to have been taken from the Latin ‘clarus’ meaning ‘clear’ or ‘pale’ as the wines resembled something more like rosé in those days.
Britain’s love affair with Bordeaux wines began when Henry Plantagenet (later King Henry II) married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1151 bringing the city of Bordeaux as well as a large chunk of South West France under British rule. English merchants were quickly established in the city as well as other nearby port cities like La Rochelle in order to trade the local wine and other commodities.
How Did We Come to Love Port?
Triggered by a shortage of wine from Bordeaux in the late 1600s, English merchants were forced to search further afield for potential contenders to fill the void. When a few reached the upper Douro valley in Portugal, they discovered powerful reds that were made without fortification (addition of spirit to the wine).
In the decades that followed, it became common practise to add a little brandy to the casks, after fermentation, to help stabilise the wine for its long voyage to Britain. The practise of adding neutral grape-spirit, part-way through fermentation actually came much later and that’s when port developed its sweetness.
Why Are Claret & Port Wines Still Fashionable Today?
The one thread that links both Bordeaux and Port is that the very best wines are some of the most long-lived and expensive of their type in the world with perpetual demand from connoisseurs keeping prices high. Names like Château Lafite, Château Margaux and Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux and Taylor’s, Quinta do Noval and Fonseca in the Douro instantly make wine aficionados hearts race!
These iconic wines form the top of the pyramid from which the rest of both region’s wines are measured and valued.
Claret’s Main Characteristics
Nowadays Bordeaux wines are more distinctive ranging from the light-bodied ruby-red, everyday wines at the generic level right up to the opaque, densely-structured and slow-evolving blockbusters that are the envy of connoisseurs.
They’re broadly split into two distinctly different styles; those from the ‘left bank’ of the Gironde estuary throughout the sub-regions of Médoc and Graves, and those from the ‘right bank’ of the Gironde which includes the appellations of Bourg, Blaye, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. In simpler terms, think of it as Left Bank = Cabernet Sauvignon dominant, Right Bank = Merlot dominant.
For example, across the Gironde from the Graves sub-region lies the small commune of Langoiran, home to the Gonfrier family and the historic estate of Château Le Gardera. They’ve been managing their vineyards organically since 2010 and are certified too. This is a forward, supple and elegant wine with bags of summer pudding fruits and fine tannins thanks to the Merlot dominance. There are also some subtle spice notes from partial barrel ageing. An ideal accompaniment for roast poultry or steak frites.
By comparison, if you head north of Bordeaux city into the heart of the Médoc, you’ll find the commune of Cissac which abuts Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. Château Lamothe-Cissac, “Cru Bourgeois” has been in the Fabre family since 1964 and the estate today has the highest sustainable certification of HVE level 3. After traditional fermentation in vat, the wine spends 12 months maturing in French oak barriques (30% new). Leading with Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) over Merlot (35%), this wine has all the hallmarks of a classic Médoc with ripe blackcurrant and mulberry fruit, nuanced spices, lovely balanced acidity and soft, ripe tannins. Leave the wine to mature for a few years and it develops even greater complexity and silkiness. Perfect with grilled meat or rack of lamb with dauphinoise potatoes.
Bordeaux is always a blended red and can include up to 6 permitted varieties under the regional appellation rules. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are joined by Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Carmenère and Petit Verdot.
Port’s Main Characteristics
Port can also be broadly split into two main categories; those that are bottle matured and those that are cask matured. Again, to simplify, think of them as Bottle Matured = Ruby & Vintage Port, Cask Matured = Tawny Port.
Ruby ports are young, lighter-bodied and fruit-driven ports for immediate drinking while Vintage ports need longer time in the bottle to soften and develop into rich, complex-tasting ports. Tawny ports on the other hand reveal characters like dried fruits, coffee and nuts and are much more developed when released.
For an outstanding Vintage-style port, look no further than the small quality house of Delaforce, established in 1834. It quickly became a globally-recognised name synonymous with high quality Port wine and as a result they were granted a warrant at the start of the 20th century to supply the Portuguese royal household. Today the wines are produced by Real Companhia Velha, Portugal’s oldest wine company.
Delaforce Late Bottled Vintage Port blends up to 30 permitted varieties but majors on Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. Matured in large oak casks for 4-6 years before bottling, this is ready to drink and doesn’t need decanting. Rich, mellow and harmonious, this is a stylish port with great balance and finesse which pairs beautifully with blue cheeses, mature hard cheeses or chocolate desserts.
As a bit of fun for Christmas, we’ve managed to source some Château Le Gardera in magnum format, so two bottles into one. Not only do they look great on the table but they’re perfect for larger gatherings too. So why not add one to your festive feast!