Why are Bordeaux wines called "claret"?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is the origin of the Brits’ traditional nickname for Bordeaux wines as “claret”? There is a French white grape named Clairette, a Rhône varietal. Is that a coincidence, or is there a connection there?

—Doug B., Clifton, Va.

Dear Doug,

Before “claret” was the nickname for Bordeaux wines, it meant “clear,” “pale” or “light-colored” wine (“claret” being derived from the Latin word for “clear”). This is back in the 14th and 15th centuries, when wines from Bordeaux were actually paler, almost like rosés. In the late Middle Ages, “claret” also referred to a heated wine poured over a bag of spices.

The first known references to “claret” as dark red Bordeaux wines were in the 1700s by the British trade. History buffs will recall that France and England were at war during this period, and it was right around then that the English started seeking out Portuguese wines to satisfy their thirst.

These days “claret” is used as a generic way to refer to Bordeaux wines (or wines styled after Bordeaux) and the associated dark red color that’s also used to describe anything from nail polish to yarn.

I couldn’t find a direct connection between “claret” and the Clairette grape, but perhaps Clairette—a white wine grape—is also related to the Middle French and Latin variations of “clear” or “light-colored” wine.

—Dr. Vinny

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