It’s all clear (at last)!

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

So, we’ve made it through the first holiday. Only two to go. Having settled down, just slightly, from the first hubba hubba weekend, we do need to keep moving so that we aren’t caught unprepared for the next ones coming. Especially, with the next two holidays only one week apart from each other, and one of them being a big shopping holiday and one of them being a big drinking night.

The focus of this article is meant to clarify a question that stems from the labels on some wines: What do specific words mean?

As we all know, many wines are blends, meaning they are made from more than one grape variety. Since our new wine this week is from California, let’s keep things manageable and discuss just wines from there. Wines labeled for a specific grape variety have to be made with a minimum of 75 percent that grape by U.S. law. In practice, some varietally labeled wines are 100 percent the variety named and some are anywhere from the 75 percent to the 100 percent. Many times we have no way of knowing. But, let’s face it — if we like the wine, do we really have to care about knowing?

When it comes to our specific label discussion for this week, there seem to be a number of California wines that are called “Claret.”  By law, once a wine does not have the minimum 75 percent of one variety in it needed to name the wine for the variety, it is allowed to name the wine anything it wants.

“Claret” is a name that has some history to it. And some understanding attached to it of what sorts of grapes are probably in a wine with that name. The history of the name “claret” goes back several centuries to Bordeaux, France, and back to Latin, as well. The Latin word “clarus” means “clear.” And the Latin phrase “claratum vinum” means “clarified wine.”  In Old French the same phrase was “vin claret.”  And, crossing the English Channel, and speaking Middle English, it became just “claret.”

About the 12th century, the wines made in Bordeaux were very popular in England.  Partly because the English King Henry (Plantagenet) II (1133-1189) was connected to French royal families in the Loire Valley and he was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Southwestern region in France that included part of what is now the Bordeaux wine region.

Interestingly, the Bordeaux wines of the 12th century, and into the 14th and 15th centuries, were not the same as they are currently. The word “claret” was loosely translated to mean pale, not just clear. And it was a good name for the paler almost rosé colored wines of that time.

As Henry, and his successors, began to not like the French as much as they had, and wars broke out, the English moved on from Bordeaux wines to Portuguese wines. But the name “claret” remained. It still refers to Bordeaux red wines, even though they are now much deeper shades of red, and to many wines that were and are styled after Bordeaux wines. For wines from California, this means the name “Claret” is used to suggest to buyers that a wine with this name is made from Bordeaux varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It is important that we, as the buyers of wines with this name, realize that California is allowed to use this name for any combination of the five Bordeaux grapes, all of them or some of them, and even for wines with mostly Bordeaux varieties and a splash of a non-Bordeaux grape. Still, we get the basic idea. A California “claret” is going to be that winery’s version of a Bordeaux.

And, we move on to our winery and wine for this week: Donati Family Vineyards Claret. This wine comes from the Paicines AVA, an area in central California, about an hour from San Jose to the north and Monterrey to the west. When the Spanish missions worked their way up into California, this area was very important. When the missions were abandoned, their vineyards disappeared too. But, Almaden rediscovered this growing area 35 or 40 years ago. But, again, these vineyards were abandoned because they were being used to grow huge amounts of inexpensive grapes — more lucrative vineyards were found. And the Paicines area returned to growing high-end grapes for fine wines. DFV, Donati Family Vineyards, is the only winery located in the AVA. Their vineyards in the area are located at 500 to 1,200 feet above sea level. And it is like a wind tunnel here, a cool ocean breeze blowing through to the San Joaquin Valley. There are few trees to block these breezes. And, the evening fog lingers longer than in other areas. Annual rainfall is 12 to 15 inches.

All of which makes our wine what it is. The 2011 Donati Claret. This was a cool growing season, difficult for some growers, but it made elegant wines. The grapes ripened slowly, developing multiple, layered flavors. Fermentation was in stainless steel tanks, and punch-downs and punch-overs were done twice a day. (This is a process where the cap of grape pieces and pulp that forms at the top of a vat or tank is punched down into the wine for added flavors and colors and complexities.) All of the wine, 100 percent, is barrel aged for 19 months. Thirty-three percent new French oak, 4 percent new American oak and 66 percent neutral oak. This finished wine is a blend of 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 percent Merlot, 7 percent Malbec, 6 percent Cabernet Franc and 2 percent Petit Verdot. Yes, a true claret.

Our wine tastes like strawberries and cherries and cranberries, black currants, plums, and cocoa powder and cola, all with a terrific smooth texture, which means it is ready to drink. Clearly.

For only $15.99 at Bill’s Liquors on Lady’s Island. Enjoy.