If you’re a wine lover, you may have come across references to claret, a type of red wine. This term can be confusing; it almost never turns up in discussions of wine outside the U.K. In fact, “claret” is — usually — simply a British way of referring to red Bordeaux.
The story of England’s lasting love of Bordeaux reds begins in the 12th century, when King Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress to a huge region of western France. By this marriage, Henry came to rule an area of France greater than that ruled by his rival, French King Louis VII — an area that included the Bordeaux region. As a result, Bordeaux began a profitable wine trade with England. One of the most popular Bordeaux wines was called clairet; this term is the origin of the word “claret.”
Clairet was actually somewhat different from modern claret: It was a form of dark rose wine rather than a true red. However, the term stuck even after French victory in the Hundred Years’ War cut England off from its source of inexpensive Bordeaux wines.
Over the centuries, the Bordeaux region has undergone many changes; wetland drainage in the 17th century led to increased wine production, and the growing worldwide reputation of Bordeaux wines resulted in a booming wine market as well as a drive to classify and standardize. 1855 saw the introduction of a system of classification that divided Bordeaux wines into different categories of quality and price. The classification was a massive marketing success, attracting new interest in Bordeaux wines, especially reds.
However, Bordeaux was already popular once again in England. During the 18th century, Bordeaux exports had resumed, and the wine had taken its place as one of Britain’s favorites. Even as the rest of the world came to think of this wine simply as “Bordeaux,” the term “claret” remained common in Britain.
Although the term is not as universal as it used to be, British wine writers still frequently refer to claret when discussing Bordeaux reds. Bordeaux winemakers have even begun using the term to refer to light, drinkable table reds. Because the term is not protected in the same way that “Bordeaux” is, wine buyers may even see the term on the labels of some American reds.