CLARET WINE: A British and French Story
Claret wine is a red or deeply hued rosé Bordeaux wine, traditionally made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes. The name originates from the French phrase for “clear,” or, more precisely, Claret, a term used to describe its color. Claret became popular with the English aristocracy, who drank several bottles daily, and it remains one of the oldest French wine styles still available today.
Henry II, known as Henry Plantagenet, was born on March 5, 1133, to Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou, and his wife, Matilda, who was also the daughter of King Henry I. As a woman, Matilda was denied rulership over England and Normandy following her father’s death. However, her husband Geoffrey conquered Normandy and invested his son, Henry, with the duchy in 1150. When his father passed, Henry again took on Count of Anjou a year later.
In the 12th century, precisely on May 18, 1152, Henry Plantagenet of England and French Eleanor of Aquitaine said their marriage vows in a ceremony void of the glitz and glamor accustomed to royalty. Their union occurred barely eight weeks after the annulment of Eleanor’s first marriage to Louis VII (King of France). It instigated an instant rivalry between Louis of France and Henry of England.
More importantly, this grand wedding required the bride, Eleanor, to hand over landholdings as part of her dowry. The broad strip landholding ended up being one of the choice areas in southern France, so much that it included its Bordeaux wine-growing region (where Claret’s wine designation is still planted).
Their union triggered a spike in Bordeaux wine across England and opened this region to the English market and, eventually, the world. As time went on, French wines were able to be exported again across the English Channel, and this Anglo-French trade increased exponentially over the next 100 years.
In 1154, Eleanor’s husband, Henry, rose to the position of rulership to become King Henry II of England after a successful expedition to recover the throne of England from his mother’s rival, King Stephen. With Bordeaux and the swathes of Gascony and Aquitaine provinces under the rule of King Henry, it took The Battle of Castillo on July 17, 1453, between England and France to bring a final stop to the 100 Years War and the reign of England on Bordeaux.
King Henry II (ruled 1154-1189) conquered Normandy and was its lord until John, nicknamed Lackland, his son, lost it in a war with King Philip II of France in 1204. John also lost Anjou to France. He was primarily the youngest surviving son in the union between King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor and wasn’t expected to inherit significant lands; however, he was Henry’s favorite son.
But even after losing this region, England still had control of Bordeaux and recognized the area as a prime location for winemaking. The British were the first to call this Bordeaux wine “Claret.” This naming made sense because the color at that time was pale as it lacked concentration.
Wine in a glass
As the years went on, King Henry IV would become the first king of England, whose coronation took place in Bordeaux. He asserted dominance as King of England & France and earned the title Lord of Ireland (1399 – 1413). During his reign, the wines from Bordeaux were served at all royal dinners, which included aristocrats and high-ranking government officials. By serving these wines, they created a market for them, which eventually led wine production to become one of the region’s primary sources of income.
England’s significant impact on France’s Bordeaux wine region lies within its initial introduction to this type of wine and some of the methods used to produce it. These would include some of the first names associated with the wines and a change in grape varietals.
By the 18th century, Claret had transitioned from a dark rose spiced wine to the dry, dark red color it’s known for today. By the close of the Middle Ages, English consumers began to favor French wines over their domestic ones, and at the time, Bordeaux was exporting large quantities of wine to England. However, when Charles VII became King of France, he continued the French offensive and reasserted control over the region until Bordeaux became France’s territory.
The primary purpose of the British’s involvement in Bordeaux was for trade purposes as they looked to build up their wealth. During the days of King Henry II, England was in a state of civil war, and this region’s wines became a significant part of his wealth. It allowed him to make new friends, leading to an increased influence over France. The wine trade helped both countries because England supplied them with other goods while France provided them with wine.
Between 1650-1785, Bordeaux’s wine exports increased by at least 1500%, evidence that it was under British rule that wine production skyrocketed. This time is commonly referred to as the second boom — the first was when the Romans planted Bordeaux vineyards 2000 years earlier.
The British never held ‘True Power’ in Bordeaux, but their impact on the region was significant. They spread vines across the land, and while they were in power, Claret became integrated into English culture, and their appreciation for Claret remains today.
As for the term Claret, it is still a generic name for wines made in Bordeaux today, and the French adopted the word in all cases where this wine style is present. The wine styles produced in this area also remained virtually unchanged since the British preferred these styles over others. Because of this, Bordeaux wines are still among the most highly appreciated in the world today.