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What is a claret?

April 19, 2011

I began drinking Niebaum-Coppola Claret after a visit to their winery approximately 10 years ago.
But now a bottle is in the $19-22 range. I am looking for a similar claret, but very few wine merchants carry claret. Any recommendations in the $15 range.
Your question points to an annoyance of ours. What is a claret? It is an old term used by British wine merchants to describe a decent, but moderately priced Bordeaux they used in their private labels. It has no relevance today, but we assume it it is meant to apply to blends of the five Bordeaux grape varieties. Several years ago, Europe worked with the U.S. to agree to the use of certain wine terms, like burgundy, chablis and champagne. Claret was permitted for only those wineries who were using the term at the time, but we suspect the agreement has been violated.
Claret no longer applies to a price category, so your search for a $15 version is going to be difficult. Newton and Niebaum-Coppola are among the cheapest we’ve seen. We suggest you look at other blends rather than sticking with the “claret” label that is so loosely applied. Examples of inexpensive blends are the Liberty School Cuvee, Apothic Red and Marietta Old Vine Red. These are all great values.
I keep hearing about tannin in wine and that’s it is necessary for aging wine. Whatever it is, I don’t like its taste. Can you enlighten me?
Tannin is a natural acid that comes from grape skins and stems. Because skin contact gives wine its color and adds to the flavor, it is impossible to avoid in making red wine (white wine has malo acids). Winemakers who want a full-body wine that can be cellared for years leave the skins with the fermenting juice longer. These tannic acids fade with bottle age but can be bitter when the wine is immediately consumed. Pairing it with food, especially beef and game, offsets the bitterness. The presence of strong tannin is why we discourage consumers from spending hundreds of dollars for one of these top-notch wines in restaurants. They are simply too tannic to enjoy.
I like zinfandel but sometimes find it too sweet. Is there an alternative?
Consumers often confuse “sweet” and “ripe.” Although zinfandel can have some residual sugar, it is most likely your palate is identifying ripe or “jammy” fruit characteristics. We often say a zinfandel reminds us of berry jam on toast. It is dense with flavors of black berries and raspberries. If that is too much for you, try syrah. It too can be jammy, but you may like it better.
Is it me or is there a proliferation of wine bars?
There is an explosion of wine bars, once a phenomenon confined to large cities or wine-growing regions. Think about coffee bars and you’ll understand wine bars. Consumers are willing to spend extra money for a good cup of joe if there is an experience associated with it. Wine bars and small plates are all about the atmosphere that comes with a glass of wine. Their advantage is that it allows customers to discover new and expensive wines without having to buy an entire bottle. Our hometown in Maryland has four wine bars and a population of only 36,000.
RECOMMENDED WINES
Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley Merlot 2007 ($35). This is one of the best premium merlots we have tasted in a long time. It is aromatic and generous in complex, rich flavors: thyme, cloves and licorice in the nose with blackberry, cassis and pepper notes on the palate. We love the mushroom, forest-floor character and the pure fruit flavors.
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($45). This opulent wine from the Oakville District is packed with floral aromatics, forward black cherry and cassis flavors with hints of mocha. The fine tannins make it enjoyable now but hint that it will do well with some bottle age.
Apotheic Red ($14). This value blue of zinfandel, merlot and syrah is a simple but delicious drink recommended to us by a reader. It has black cherries, vanilla, cloves and full body.

Check out the authors’ blog at wine-guys.com. Some of the wines recommended in our column may have been provided for review by their producers. The authors can be reached at tmarquardt@capitalgazette.com.

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