Clairette

Clairette is a lightly coloured grape variety that grows throughout southern France. It was once widespread, but changing tastes and fashions since the 18th and 19th centuries have seen this grape replaced with higher quality varieties. However, there are still a few Clairette strongholds in the Rhône Valley and in Languedoc, where it makes fresh, sparkling wines and light, easy-drinking still wines.

Varietal Clairette wines are most often sparkling. A large amount of plantings can be found in the central Rhône Valley near Montelimar, and fall under the Clairette de Die appellation, which reputedly predates the sparkling wines of Champagne. Some of the wines made under this appellation must be 100 percent Clairette, but those labelled as Methode Ancestrale are instead required to be 75 percent Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. The Côteaux de Die and Crémant de Die appellations also permit the use of Clairette in varying proportions.

Further west, Clairette is found in still wines under the Clairette du Languedoc and Clairette de Bellegarde appellations. The latter of these produces a tiny output of still, dry wines, while the former is also permitted in a richly sweet rancio style. Clairette is also permitted as a minor blending grape in a wide range of other appellations in the Languedoc and Rhône regions: perhaps most notably in the red and white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Small plantings exist in Italy, as well as a handful of countries outside of Europe including South Africa and Lebanon.

The grape is not particularly forgiving to winemakers, which is one of the main reasons for its decline in the 20th century. Its tendency to oxidise quickly was once used to make madeirised table wines and Vermouth, but a move away from this style of winemaking has seen this trait become a drawback in recent years. Clairette also has low acidity and high alcohol, neither of which is particularly suited to modern palates.

Happily, growers and vintners are able to counter these effects through early harvesting and careful vinification. When made well, varietal Clairette wines are light and fresh with flavours of apple, citrus and stonefruit. The variety is also commonly blended with Ugni Blanc, Terret Blanc and Grenache Blanc, to give wines with higher acidity.

Clairette, which means "light one" in French, provides an interesting example of the complexities surrounding the identification and naming of grape varieties. Several other varieties including Ugni Blanc and Bourboulenc have this somewhat generic name among their list of chief synonyms.
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