In his diary entry for Friday April 10th 1663, Samuel Pepys wrote that he went to the Royall Oak Tavern, Lombard Street, where he, “…here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.”
Ho Bryan is Haut Brion, a First Great Growth (Premier cru) Bordeaux wine, from Pessac Léognan, in Graves (it is the only one which does not come from Médoc). The first ‘clairets’ (Fr. ‘pale’) were wines came from Pessac Léognan, and were originally light red wines, closer to our rosés. The English had already been importing ‘clairet’ wines for over five hundred years, but they were rough, thin wines, to be drunk immediately. Nevertheless, the English developed a taste for the stuff, which they anglicised to ‘claret’, and over time the name became used for dry, dark red wines from Bordeaux.
As the quality of claret improved, it started to be kept in casks, to allow it to mature and develop. At the same time, better corks were produced, which allowed bottles to be ‘binned’ and kept on their sides. As the wine matured it threw down a sediment (the lees), which had to be removed, or ‘racked off’, before serving. The wine was ‘canted’ into decanters or jugs to be brought to table – serving it straight from the bottle or the cask was not the ‘done thing’ (just as we like to serve milk in a jug, rather than plonking the milk bottle on the table). This also allowed the wine to ‘breathe’, bringing it to room temperature and developing the body, taste and bouquet. The practice of using decanters then spread to spirits; we are more likely to use a decanter for whisky rather than wine today.
Claret in particular was decanted into jugs, which were originally solid silver, but over time the traditional claret jug – glass, with a hinged silver lid – developed, and were very popular with the Victorians and Edwardians. Here are a couple of mine, which came from charity shops, at about a fiver apiece.
Another development of the decanter was the ships decanter. These were made with the body of the decanter at the base, with a long neck and handle. The low body transferred to weight and centre of gravity to the bottom of the decanter, making it much harder for it to overbalance, particularly when standing on the table on a ship rolling on the waves at sea. I brought this one back from France. I bought it from a Cave in Dinard, and paid somewhere in the region of £20 for it. I also bought some chateau-bottled Bordeaux, at the recommendation of Monsieur le Patron, and very good they were, too. The French only use the term ‘claret’ for export purposes to England.