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Wine of the Week | Claret blends

Bordeaux has become the most investable wine region on the planet, so it’s no wonder that vineyards the world over are trying to bottle its magic. Mark Hedley looks into what makes a claret – and where you can find exciting New World examples

Claret blends

Claret is about as confusing a word as you’ll come across in the wine lexicon. The word originally derives from ‘clarus’ the Latin for ‘clear’.

So you’d think it was white wine, right? Wrong.

By the Middle Ages, ‘claret’ was used in England to describe a rosé made in Bordeaux – clairet is (or rather was) a French term for pale.

Ah, so claret is a rosé, then? Nope. Wrong again.

By the 18th century, Bordeaux had really begun to nail their red wines – and the name followed the pantone shift. And there it has stuck.

The tried and tested claret blend is a mixture of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. That is the holy trinity of grapes here – deployed in various ratios depending on the winemaker’s tastes and the region’s suitability to their growth.

BORDEAUX

Château Lassègue 2015, St-Émilion

Now, it’s only fair to start with an actual claret – from Bordeaux… and a Grand Cru at that.

Lassègue is built on old vines dating back between 50 and 60 years. The 2015 vintage is composed of 55% merlot, 40% cabernet franc and 5% cabernet sauvignon. It’s a reassuringly heavy proportion of cabernet franc if you like your reds on the peppery, savoury side. It’s also that deep garnet purple – the one that stains your teeth after just one sip (in good way).

This is planted in a warm forest floor of mushrooms and truffle.

But despite this richness and depth, the beauty of a classic claret like this is that it still delivers elegant, floral flavours at the same time – rose petals and lilacs and wild flowers.

Then, underpinning it all, is the leather wingbacks and cigar smoke of a Pall Mall members’ club.

Of course, it helps that it’s been made by Pierre Seillan – one of the world’s greatest winemakers. More on him in just one moment…

Château Lassègue 2015, St-Émilion, £32, frw.co.uk

Château Lassègue 2015, St-Émilion

SONOMA COUNTY

Vérité Le Desir

I’m surprised Monsieur Seillan is allowed back in Bordeaux these days. He spent two decades in the region making wine at several châteaux for Raoul and Jean Quancard.

But then, in 1998, he took all that Bordelaise expertise to the US to make a California claret. And to cap it all off, he called it Verite, the French for ‘truth’. Quelle ironie!

The combination of old-world experience and new-world fruit is a heady one.

Vérité’s vineyards are located in Sonoma County, where the eastern inland appellations are warm, dry, and ideal for Bordeaux varieties.

The micro climates are warm enough to fully ripen the grapes but cool enough to retain their natural acidity.

Le Desir has all the chewy summer fruit goodness you’d hope for – but then, just like its French counterpart, there’s the fluttering of rose petals and herbs de provence dusted on top.

The 2014 vintage actually marked the 50th year of Pierre Seillan’s cultivation of cabernet franc - and again the percentage (at 53%) has given this some serious opulence.

Robert Parker gave it 98 points – and told us to hang on to it for our grandchildren. They should be so lucky.

Vérité Le Desir is available from hedonism.co.uk

Vérité Le Desir 2014

HAWKE’S BAY

Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot 2017

Back in 1851, Hawke’s Bay was the first region in New Zealand to have a winery established – and to this day, it’s still the country’s second largest region.

One of its most iconic producers is the Te Mata Estate, which dates back to 1896.

The family-owned winery makes one of the most collected Kiwi reds – Te Mata Estate Coleraine. Described by Jancis Robinson as a “New Zealand national treasure”, this wine has been compared to some of the very best from Bordeaux, and the 1998 vintage was the first NZ label to make Decanter’s Wine Legends list.

The one we’ve tried here is the little brother to Coleraine – and comes in at about half the price of its award-winning sibling. Where Coleraine is cabernet sauvignon dominant, Awatea is a little more tilted towards merlot.

The 2017 is a blend of 45% cab sav, 41% merlot and 14% cab franc – the result is a wonderfully balanced and silky wine.

It manages that signature claret party trick of being at once dark and broody while also bright and floral. So you’ll find blackberry and plum, but also rose water and parma violets all in the same sip.

There’s a satisfying herby finish, too, in what is undoubtedly one of the most polished New Zealand wines you’ll find at the £30 mark.

Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot, £31.50, specialistcellars.co.uk

Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot 2017

NAPA VALLEY

Silenus 2016 Napa Valley Merlot

Now, this Silenus may call itself a merlot – but it’s not kidding anyone. At 76% merlot and 24% cabernet sauvignon, this is a claret by anyone’s standards – and a delicious one at that.

The labelling also does a slight disservice to the bottle, which is really a tale of two wines.

The merlot comes from the Ranch 9 Vineyard, which is located at the Southeast end of Napa’s Oak Knoll District. Owing to its proximity to the San Pablo Bay, this vineyard tends to be cooler during the afternoon, which is critical for growing rich and complex merlot.

Then there’s the cabernet sauvignon – also from Oak Knoll District, it comes from a unique plot adjacent to Dry Creek. This vineyard has a long history of producing extraordinary cabernet sauvignon: from the 1970s through the early 2000s, a portion of the vineyard was sold to Robert Mondavi – one of Napa’s All-Star winemakers. He used to grow his reserve cab sav here, personally visiting each year to inspect and review the vineyard.

So you have a lot of history and a lot of class here, and the wine reflects this. The first thing that will hit you is the aromas of ripe plums, violets, and the warm underpinnings of oak and leather.

There’s raspberry and dark chocolate cheesecake up next, with toasted vanilla on the side – just the right balance of fruit and acidity. Delicious.

Silenus 2016 Napa Valley Merlot, £40, jameshockingwine.com

Silenus 2016 Napa Valley Merlot
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