The More the Meritage
February 7, 2011 2 Comments
Take the word “merit” and combine it with the word “heritage.” Put in the hands of a master wine maker and blend well. What you have is Meritage, a relatively recent addition to the wine lexicon, coined in 1988 to describe new world wines made with the grape varieties of, and in the blended style of, the noble wines of Bordeaux.
The name “Meritage” was originally intended to give the wines of California a little much-needed marketing moxie at just about the time that California wines were beginning to be gain international acceptance. Since the inception, winemakers in California, Australia, Israel, and Argentina have embraced the name, and wine makers all over the world craft some of their finest wines with the Meritage blend.
The story of Meritage begins in the 1980’s. Wines from California had stunned the wine world at the Paris Tasting of 1976, and the eyes of the world had begun to be opened to the fact the some darn good wine was coming from the New World. The American public had started to embrace wine, and wine lovers from Oregon to New Jersey were happily slurping the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc coming out of Napa and Sonoma.
So here’s where the plot thickens: due to labeling laws set forth by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, wine from the U.S. must be at least 75% the named varietal grape in order to be labeled using the name of the grape, such as “Cabernet Sauvignon”. If a wine was not 75% one grape, it had to be called by a “made up” or proprietary name, or use the generic term “Table Wine.”
This proved vexing for a very good reason: At the time, Americans equated generic wines or proprietary wines with bad, bad wine, which there was plenty of in those days. Many of the first wines out of California post-prohibition were “mystery blends” of grapes grown in the warm Central Valley, distributed in big, round bottles reminiscent of a bootlegger’s stash. These wines were labeled with generic names such as “Table Wine” or they sported proprietary names. Who can forget Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Carlo Rossi Paisano or Italian Swiss Colony Red Table Wine? The 75% rule was, and still is, the labeling law in the U.S. Thus, if a winemaker was making a top-flight blend in the style of the finest blended wines of Europe, no matter how expensive or delicious it may be, it had to be labeled like a jug wine.
The truth is that the ability to blend grape varieties gives a winemaker an added tool with which to create wines of complexity and balance. Some of the finest wines in the world, such as those of Bordeaux, Chianti, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape are blends of many different grape varieties. So, it seemed that American winemakers were at a competitive disadvantage compared to the wines of Europe. In order to label their wines using the accepted vernacular, the wines had to have a minimum 75% of one grape variety, while many European wines are blends of several different grape varieties, in any proportion the winemaker chooses.
Enter our hero, The Meritage Association! Formed in 1988 by a small group of Napa Valley Vintners, the members sought to create a recognizable name associated with high-quality blended wines. In a stroke of genius, they hosted a contest to create a catchy name. The contest received over 6,000 submissions. Neil Edgar of Newark, California won by suggesting “Meritage” – a combination of the words merit and heritage. As a reward for winning the contest, Mr. Edgar was awarded two bottles of the first ten vintages of every wine licensed to use the Meritage name.
So the requirements for Meritage were set forth: A red Meritage wine must be made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenère, and/or Petit Verdot (the classic Bordeaux Grape Varieties). Gros Verdot and St. Macaire may also be used, in homage to the grapes that were grown in Bordeaux pre-phylloxera. The proportions may vary, but at least two of the grape varieties must be used, with a maximum of 90% of any single variety. For white Meritage, only Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle du Bordelais, the white grapes of Bordeaux, are permitted.
A “Meritage” does not need to use the term on the label, and many wineries (such as Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the well-known “Opus One”) prefer to use their proprietary names. However, if you read the wine’s tasting notes you are likely to find the term “Meritage blend” or “Bordeaux blend” used.
Today, there are over 120 winery members of The Meritage Association, and fine wines made with the grape varieties of, and in the blended style of, the noble wines of Bordeaux continue to be some of the world’s most cherished wines.
By the way, most of the wine enthusiasts I know use the pronunciation “meh-ri-TAHJ”, as if the wine rhymed with the French wine “Hermitage”. However, according to The Meritage Association, the word should really be pronounced like “heritage” with an “m”. Don’t sweat the pronunciation too much, though…either way you pronounce it, wine people will know what you’re talking about.