ADVERTISEMENT

Clairette: A heat-hardy white

Greg, Lenore and Joe Barritt from Jb Wines in South Australia’s Barossa Valley.

By Greg Barritt, Jb Wines, Barossa Valley, South Australia
First published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Wine & Viticulture Journal

We were introduced to Clairette by Joe Barritt who spent time winemaking at La Livinière, in the south of France, where the winery was using Clairette in some blends, including blends with Syrah.
We decided to plant a small amount of Clairette to see how it fared in our vineyards in the Barossa Valley. While some Clairette vines were planted in the region in times past, we were only aware of a few vines at the PIRSA Research Station at Nuriootpa.

The late Rick Glastonbury, of Kabminye Wines, Krondorf, was very interested in less common French varietals and helped source Clairette cuttings. We grafted buds onto three rows of Cabernet Sauvignon just above our house at Nicolai Road, Bethany. This was at a time when demand for Barossa Cabernet was at a pretty low level.
Our first Clairette vintage was in 2007 when we counted the number of buckets produced, with the grapes crushed in an old small crusher at the Research Station – very much a ‘hands-on’ exercise! This was followed by a wild ferment so we could see what these grapes did.

In 2011 we expanded our Clairette vines by taking cuttings from our Home Block at Bethany and grafting the buds to Chardonnay at the top of our Church Road block at Rowland Flat where the soil is lighter, the hill steeper and higher. So far as we could tell, both grafts to Cabernet and Chardonnay worked well and have each produced good fruit. Possibly, Clairette on Chardonnay are a little more vigorous and higher yielding.
By 2018, the demand for Barossa Cabernet had reversed compared with the situation in 2004 and we reverted the Bethany Clairette back to Cabernet (which also seems to have been successful). Over the past five years there has been much new interest in Clairette both as a single varietal wine and as a blend with red grape varieties.
We have provided cuttings of Clairette for vineyards in the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale. The average total yield of our Clairette from our current plantings is about four tonnes per year (from 0.37ha). Of this, we have used about one tonne for the jb Wines Joseph’s Clairette. The balance of the grapes have been used by Peter Schell at Spinifex Wines to make his single variety Clairette, and Lola — a blend of Semillon, Vermentino and Clairette. More recently, Paul Lindner at Langmeil Wines has taken some of our Clairette grapes to use as a component of Langmeil’s Rhône blend, Three Gardens Viognier Marsanne Roussane.

Vineyard

We now have seven rows (875 vines) of Clairette (grafted onto Chardonnay) at our Church Road vineyard at Rowland Flat. The vines are planted on the sloping foothills of the Barossa Ranges at an elevation of about 400m above sea level. The soil is light brown earth over a clay base.

As the vines are in the foothills and are elevated compared to the Barossa floor, in summer they experience cooling gulley breezes at night. Due to the slope the soils are well drained.
The vineyard is set up with a single wire trellis and drip irrigation. The vines are spur pruned and currently on the original cordon. Most of the vines have developed good canopies over the years.
Along with our other varieties in the same block, including Pinot Blanc, White Frontignac, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, we undertake a preventive fungicide spray program each year. This is principally directed towards powdery mildew, downy mildew and botrytis, and involves about six sprays before Christmas. Since we began growing Clairette, we have not noticed any particular disease issues.
We normally harvest Clairette in about mid-March, or later. In the recent 2019 vintage the harvest dates were 25 February (for Langmeil’s Rhône blend) and 18 March (for Spinifex Clairette). For a white variety in the Barossa Valley, this is late.

We monitor the grapes almost every two days for sugar, acid and flavour in the two weeks leading to harvest. In our location and experience, flavours develop slowly and late. Achieving a good balance takes some skill.
Clairette seems to be particularly hardy here. For example, surprisingly, in the 2019 vintage, following a very dry winter, spring and summer and up to 46°C in January, the Clairette vines seemed to be completely oblivious to these somewhat adverse conditions. The canopy remained strong, the grape quality seemed good and, in contrast to most other varieties, the yield was considerably higher than average.
We have always picked Clairette later than some of our red varieties and it copes very well in our environment.

Winemaking

In making the Jb Wines Joseph’s Clairette our aim has been to produce a wine which expresses the fundamental characteristics of the Clairette grape. We wanted a wine that is well balanced and shows both fruit on the front palate and a notable herbaceous savoury back palate. For this wine we use no oak.
Clairette grape juice is thought to oxidise quite easily so in our winemaking we have tried to keep temperatures low and maintain adequate protective free SO2. Grapes are hand-picked in the early morning to keep the temperature as low as possible, and then cooled overnight to 4°C. We whole-bunch press to give free-run juice and pressings. The pressings and free run are combined for fermentation in stainless steel.
In many vintages we have used wild yeast. Typically, initial Baume is about 12.3Be and the pH3.8. The juice is fermented to near dryness. During fermentation, acid is monitored carefully and, if needed, tartaric acid is added to reduce the pH. At the end of fermentation there is basically no residual sugar. The wine is maintained in stainless steel at about 18°C until being fined, cold stabilised and bottled. Prior to bottling, we sterile filter.

We have also used Clairette in other ways. Some time ago we used Clairette in our sparkling Chardonnay-Pinot Meunier-Clairette (bottled in 2012). Primary fermentation of Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier was conducted separately in stainless steel. Most of the Chardonnay was then aged in stainless steel with a small portion aged in oak, while the Pinot Meunier was also aged in oak. The Clairette was fermented in stainless steel, then aged in French oak. After 10 months, the wines were blended in a ratio of un-oaked Chardonnay base (78%), Pinot Meunier (12%), oaked Chardonnay (6%), and Clairette (4%). This proved to be a particularly delicious base wine. The blend then underwent secondary fermentation by the Method Charmat in a pressurised stainless-steel tank.
More recently we blended some Clairette with Shiraz to produce the Barritt Road Shiraz Clairette MV. This wine is a blend of Shiraz 2011 (88%) and Clairette 2013 (12%). This is a lighter style, fruit-driven wine with notes of intense cherries, spice and pepper. It seems a really enigmatic wine in that it is light and quite drinkable (12.9%v/v alcohol) but exhibits a spectrum of flavours from the aged characteristics of the Shiraz to the lightness imparted by the Clairette. Once again, Clairette has surprised us!

 

Jb Wines Joseph’s Clairette 2016

We produced 90 cases of this wine. The appearance is clear, light straw yellow with a touch of green hues. The nose is citrus — lemon, grapefruit and pear — with a low intensity. The taste initially impacts with sweet stone fruits, especially white peach, with pear, lemon rind and a touch of honey. However, the savoury back palate is very significant so the wine does not resemble more common white wines at all.
The Clairette has often been described as the ‘red wine drinkers’ white’. Clairette is magnificent as an aperitif — with cheeses, olives, pâté — and also with risottos and chicken dishes. It seems particularly enjoyable at lunch.

Background

Clairette (klair-ETT) is an old white variety from the south of France, known since the late 16th century. It is planted in many regions in the south of France where it may be used as a sole variety in AOCs such as Coteaux de Die and Clairette de Languedoc. It is also used a blender, for example in Chateauneuf du Pape, Cotes du Rhone, Provence and Languedoc. White Chateauneuf du Pape may be half Grenache Blanc and half Clairette. Synonyms include Blanquette, Blanc Lafite, Clairet, Clarette, Kleret, Muscade and Osianka. Blanquette was formerly used as a synonym of Clairette in New South Wales. Picapoll Blanco in Catalonia (Spain) may be the same variety based on DNA analysis. Global area planted is 2900ha (2010), mostly in France; there has been a large reduction in planted area in France during the past 50 years. It is also grown in Italy (Tuscany and Sardinia), Russia and South Africa. There are at least four wine producers in Australia (Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley and Yarra Valley).

Viticulture

Budburst is mid-season and maturity is late. Vigour is high with an erect growth habit. Bunches are medium and well-filled with medium berries. Yield is high. It is reported to be drought and heat tolerant in France and adapted to a range of soils (but susceptible to drought in South Africa). Spur pruning is used in Australia. It is tolerant of oidium (powdery mildew) but susceptible to downy mildew. Bunches are susceptible to bunch rot. There are at least seven clones available in Australia.

Wine

Clairette is used for both still and sparkling wines that are simple but crisp and suited for early drinking. It is usually picked early to retain freshness. In France, its natural low acidity may be partly overcome by blending with more acidic varieties such as Piquepoul Blanc. Descriptors include fennel, apricot, lime and peach. Wines are said to lack intensity if yield is excessive. Clairette is very prone to oxidation during vinification and ‘rancio’ wines made with over-ripe grapes were formerly (and perhaps still are) made in France. The sparkling wine Clairette de Die is a blend of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (75% minimum) and Clairette (25% maximum).

For further information on this and other emerging varieties, contact Marcel Essling ([email protected] or 08 8313 6600) at The Australian Wine Research Institute to arrange the presentation of the Alternative Varieties Research to Practice program in your region.