Are most California Cabernets "clarets"?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

According to U.S. law, single-variety labels in the United States must have at least 75 percent of the labeled variety. This means that in many cases, a bottle of California Cabernet, for example, can actually be a blend of about 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, while the rest can be other varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, etc.), and this seems to be very common. Would this mean that many American wines are actually clarets?

—Sung, Austin, Texas

Dear Sung,

You are absolutely correct that in the United States, any varietal—that is, a wine labeled as made from a single grape—is only legally required to be 75 percent of that grape. This gives winemakers flexibility to adapt to vintage variations, to blend in other grapes for added complexity, and to give them some tools to help them create a house style.

But I know plenty of winemakers that are purists about expressing a single grape variety, or even a single vineyard expression of a single grape variety, or even a single vineyard block or a single grape clone, and so on. But I do think that’s it’s fair to say that between this labeling technicality and the way that wines from other regions are historically blends, most of the wines out there are blends of two or more grapes.

Now for the term “claret.” I continue to be amazed at how often this term pops up—I thought it peaked centuries ago. "Claret" is a British nickname for the red wines of Bordeaux, which are typically a blend of multiple grapes (notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot). So, are many American wines actually clarets? Plenty of California Cabernets might also fall under the category of "Bordeaux blends," but the term claret dates back to the 18th century, and few of today's California Cabernets would resemble the Bordeaux wines for which the term was originally intended.

—Dr. Vinny

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