Once used to make Vermouth, Clairette is a white skinned grape variety, intrinsically associated with Mediterranean wines. It is an engine-room variety among the plethora of legal possibilities in Châteauneuf du Pape, for example. Yet what Clairette brings to blends such as these is frequently underestimated. Clairette is the harbinger of minerality and freshness. This is as much due to the variety's inherent bitterness as it is to acidity levels, which are moderate at best. Given the Mediterranean's propensity for full-weighted and unctuous wines however, Clairette brings an uncanny poise and attractive drinkability.
It is for these reasons that Clairette has become fashionable recently. It assists in the blend of Palette, Côteaux-d'Aix-en-Provence and Cassis, all quintessential wines of the Mediterranean summer. They are drunk by the tourist hordes and the jet-set alike. Meanwhile, Louis Barruol, doyen of Gigondas and the maker of sublime Côte-Roties and Châteauneuf du Pape, recently crafted a straight varietal Clairette as an experimental bottling. The wine was so good, he ended up bringing it to market as a special cuvée.
Nevertheless, only two French appellations are dedicated to Clairette as their principal grape variety: Clairette-du-Languedoc in the Herault, and Clairette-de-Bellegarde in the Gard. Here, Clairette produces a variety of styles including dry, sweet, fortified and sparkling. In addition, Crèmant de Die is a straight sparkling Clairette, from the Drôme region.
It is surprising that Clairette is not found more in Australia given its tendency to ripen late and capacity to perform on old, impoverished soils. Perhaps this is because of its outdated reputation as a variety capable of little more than oxidative wines, ill-suited to the reductively handled and easy-drinking fruity styles championed by a young wine culture. While Clairette exists in patches in the Hunter Valley, it is seldom given the attention necessary to produce quality wine.
As recent examples in France are proving however, Clairette is capable of a broad palette of wine styles, many savoury and complex. Its former reputation was likely due as much to poor winemaking and clumsy viticulture, as it was to Clairette's inherent foibles.