Clairette Blanche (pronounced Kleh-RHEHT BLAHNSH) is a grape that was once one of the most widely planted white grapes in the south of France, and while acreage has declined, is still used in a variety of ways, including as a component of the Rhone's best-known sparkling wine. It's still relatively new to us at Tablas Creek, in production just since 2014, but we like its potential for fresh wines with nutty richness.
Clairette Blanche is an ancient grape, once very widely planted in the south of France, and the second-most planted white grape in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Its name comes from "claire" (meaning clear, fair, or bright) and "blanche" (white). There is a pink variant (Clairette Rose) that is not widely planted, so much so that for most French winemakers, they simply refer to the white version as "Clairette". For the Francophiles out there, Clairette is one of very few French grape names that is feminine. Most grapes are masculine, and the white variant is "Blanc". Because Clairette is feminine, the adjective white becomes "Blanche".
Clairette is first mentioned in the historical record in 1575 and famous as a component (along with Picpoul Blanc) of the renowned Picardin white wine that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, as now, it was valued for its adaptation to hot, dry climates; it can be picked early to show freshness and minerality, or can be left on the vine for a richer, more alcoholic result. As recently as the late 1950s there were more than 34,000 acres planted in the south of France, and while acreage has declined to some 5,000 acres as of 2016, it is still a major component of the white wines in the Rhone, the Gard, the Var, and the Drome. In Chateauneuf du Pape, it is the second-most-planted white variety after Grenache Blanc at about 175 acres planted and is enjoying resurgence of popularity, with a growing number of Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers turning to it to produce wines with more freshness and minerality.
Although it is rarely acknowledged as a varietal wine in France, it is the only variety permitted in the appellation Coteaux de Die, in the Drome region east of the city of Valence. Curiously, it is not the lead grape in the sparkling wine "Clairette de Die", which must be at least 75% Muscat. Up to 25% Clairette is permitted, and it is used to provide "elegance and finesse" to the otherwise intensely floral Muscat grape.
Outside of France, Clairette is found in small amounts in South Africa, Morocco, Italy, and Tunisia.
In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Clairette Blanche was one of these. It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property. Our first release of Clairette off of these vines came in 2014.
Clairette Blanche in the Vineyard & Cellar
Clairette Blanche is relatively late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable than most of our white grapes to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year. It grows vigorously and very upright, and produces large, oval grapes. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis. It ripens in the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, and typically right as we're finishing Grenache Blanc and starting Grenache Noir.
We have experimented with earlier and later pickings and have found we preferred an earlier harvest, focusing on citrusy expressiveness and minerality, rather than richer texture. To give more richness to the earlier picking, we ferment Clairette in neutral oak and stir the lees, and feel like this treatment gave us the best of both worlds: freshness and expressiveness, but also richer mouthfeel.
As we do with our new varieties, we bottled our Clairette Blanche on its own the first few years of production. Starting in 2017, we have also included it in our Esprit de Tablas Blanc most years, where its brightness provides counterpoint to the wine's Roussanne base. We were also able to source some Clairette Blanche in recent years from a nearby vineyard for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc, where its citrus character fits in nicely with the Grenache Blanc that leads the blend, and its modest alcohols moderate the higher-sugar Grenache Blanc and Viognier components.
Aromas and Flavors
Clairette Blanche is quite pale in color (it name means "clear white" after all), and on the nose reminiscent in many ways of Picpoul; we have identified aromas of pineapple, key lime, and mint. In the mouth, it stands right on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass. The finish is clean and slightly nutty, with an anise note.
This article originally appeared in one of our newsletters. Each newsletter, we spotlight the history and characteristics of one of our Rhone varietals. You can sign up for our mailing list.
You can go back to the summaries of the different Rhône grape varietals.