Thanks to the British, the world of fine wine is firmly anchored to the love of claret. A derivative of the Latin term for “clear,” the word “claret” used to refer to the pale, rose-like color of the wines of Bordeaux back in the 14 th and 15th centuries. Even though the wines of Bordeaux began to be made typically darker and deeper in color and body over the centuries, the British wine trade, and their hoity-toity clientele, adopted the term “claret” in the 1700s to refer to the dark red wines of Bordeaux. Today the term “claret” remains a generic reference to the wines of Bordeaux (and also wines styled after Bordeaux). It is even a legally protected trade name within the European Union, describing a red Bordeaux wine.
Bordeaux is France’s largest wine-producing region with more than 8,500 producers (Chateaux) releasing about 700 million bottles each year. It is the home of some of the world’s most prestigious vineyards and Chateaux including the legendary “First Growths” of Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild, as well as the superlative dessert wine created at Chateau d’Yquem.
Bordeaux’s chief geographic features are the Garonne and Dordogne rivers that flow into the Gironde estuary. The more than 50 appellations are found either “Right Bank” (north of the Dordogne), “Left Bank” (west and south of the Garronne) or “Entre-deux-mers,” in the area between the two rivers. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite verdot, cabernet franc, malbec and carmenre are the only legally permitted red grapes in Bordeaux and are usually blended together to create a specific “house style.” As a general rule, cabernet sauvignon is the primary grape in the Left Bank while merlot is predominant in the Right.
The quality of Bordeaux wines can range from simple, cheap, plonk to very fine, extraordinarily delicious, and extremely expensive. It is easy to fall in love with quality Bordeaux wines. A really good kosher example from the Medoc appellation is the Chateau Rollan de By 2010 that opens with black currant, earth and cedar aromas. A full-bodied, elegant effort, it has soft tannins providing a smooth background for the layers of plum, cassis, mint, coffee and spice that extend throughout the lengthy finish.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d take a moment to address the purported shortage in American oak barrels for maturing American whiskey. It is true, alas, that there has been a constriction of the availability and supply of new barrels. This tightness of supply has helped push a bunch of the craft-distiller crowd into tinkering even more than usual with used-cask finishing and related alternatives to virgin oak. Several of the big bourbon players are currently expanding production, as well as their warehousing capacity, which also feeds into this sense of demand soaring past supply. Feeding the speculative stories on this apparent barrel “shortage” has been a lot of guff about limited natural resources. The only resource in short supply, however, is qualified labor.
Simply put, there are not enough experienced, qualified hardwood loggers and logging companies to harvest the trees, and transport the wood to the stave mills. This is the only real logjam, as it were, in the supply chain. In fairness, inclement weather has also been a factor, since it impacts the potential safety of the loggers and complicates logistics and transport, but the most significant factor is the manpower issue.
The forests are very healthy. The stock of harvestable trees is growing faster than they can be cut so each year, despite the number that are taken, there are more available than the year before. There is also plenty of cooperage capacity. The problem is getting enough trees cut and to the stave mills. This problem may persist for awhile if demand keeps growing. Even if the gap narrows, it may take years to fully close it.
The biggest downside, however, is that tight supply will eventually slow production, and increase costs. This, too, takes time. So no need to run out and begin hoarding your favorite American whiskey; it’ll be a few years yet before the supply chain issues of today affect the whiskey products on the shelf of tomorrow.
As we contemplate all this, we enjoy some:
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, 12 year old, 2013 Edition (49 percent abv; $55.00):
This delicious and richly aromatic whiskey exhibits lovely aromas of vanilla, caramel, cooked banana, raisins, dried, dark fruits, chocolate and a touch of nutmeg, all of which follows through on the palate along with additional flavors of butterscotch, ginger, and cinnamon. The whiskey finishes with clove, oak and some subtle pecan. Stunning. L’Chaim!