The More the Meritage

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.

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 wine meeting the requirements for a Meritage does not need to use the term on the label—and many wineries prefer to use proprietary names (such as Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the well-known “Opus One”). Others just stick to “red table wine!” However, if you read the wine’s tasting notes or technical sheets you may find the term “Meritage blend” or “Bordeaux blend” used.

Today, there are over 120 winery members of The Meritage Alliance, and the style of wines (both red and white) 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 Alliance, 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.

Note: The Meritage Association has since changed its name to the Meritage Alliance. 

Reference/for more information:

The Mertiage Alliance:


Tales of the Vine: Flying Cigars

Tales of the Vine: Flying Cigars

Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône is one of the oldest and most prestigious wine growing regions in France.  The famous red wine of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is made from a chorus of grapes, with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre making up the bulk of the blend.

The town name, roughly translated as “New Castle of the Pope”, refers to a time in the fourteenth century when the French Pope Clement V resided not in Rome but in the city of Avignon, a short fifteen-minute drive from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine making region. Pope Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, chose the town for his summer residence, and built the namesake “new castle” papal estate on a hill overlooking the vineyards. Pope John XXII also planted olive trees, expanded the vineyards, and was a great proponent of the wines of the region.

To this day, the castle’s majestic remains loom over the town and form a picturesque backdrop to the surrounding vineyards.

In 1954, at the height of the cold war, this famous wine region and the nearby town were suddenly plagued with a series of U.F.O. sightings.  The town and the surrounding areas were full of panic-stricken citizens and rampant rumors of an alien invasion. The town council was very concerned – but not about the public panic or the possibility of local citizens being abducted by aliens.  What concerned the town council was protecting the region’s priceless vineyards. In response, the following municipal decree was adopted:

Article 1:  The flying overhead, landing, and taking off of aeronautical machines called “flying saucers” or “flying cigars”, of whatever nationality they may be, is strictly forbidden in the territory of the commune of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Article 2:  Any aeronautical machine –“flying saucer” or “flying cigar”-that lands on the territory of the commune will be immediately confiscated and its passengers taken off to jail.

The “flying cigar” laws remain on the books today.

Several decades later, renegade winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, California set out to create a California Wine based on the grape varieties and in the style of the legendary red wine of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, he named his wine, with a respectful tongue held-in-cheek, “Le Cigare Volant”.  “Le Cigare Volant” is the French term for “flying saucer”.

Oh…and by the way – you can stop worrying…as far as I know, no flying saucers have ever landed in the commune of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.











Tales of the Vine: The King with the Grizzly Beard

Behind every bottle, there’s a story…

Born in 742 and rising to power as the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of much of the Western World, it was Emperor Charlemagne who commanded the planting of the Pinot Noir vines that produce the excellent red Burgundy of Le Corton.  It is well-known that Emperor Charlemagne adored the precious red wine of Le Corton, and drank some every day.

However, as the years past and the king became an older man, his hand was no longer as steady as it once was.  From time to time, while enjoying his precious red Burgundy, he would spill some wine onto his flowing white beard.  The resulting red stains annoyed his wife to such an extent that she demanded that he stop drinking wine.

Emperor Charlemagne was a legendary lover of the company of women, but was determined nonetheless to not give in to his wife’s demands.  Charlemagne craftily decided to become a white wine aficionado in order to be able to drink to his heart’s content without compromising his regal appearance or arousing the wrath of his last and reportedly favorite wife.

Thus, Emperor Charlemagne demanded that part of the hill of Le Corton be replanted with white grapes, and the famous white wine vineyard now known as Corton-Charlemagne came to be.  With white wine in hand, Charlemagne was able to drink his beloved wine again, shaky hands, grizzly white beard, and all.


Tales of the Vine: Est! Est!! Est!!!

Behind every bottle, there’s a story…

Legend has it that in 1107, under the order of The Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, a German Bishop named Johan Fugger was sent to Rome. He was journeying there to visit the Pope in hope of being elevated to Cardinal.

Fugger was a rotund man known for being very fond of food, wine, and the other good things in life.  So fond of good wine was he, that on his travels he customarily sent his faithful servant, Martin, one day ahead of the rest of his group in order to seek out the best local wine in the towns along the way. When he found an inn serving good wine he was to mark the door with the word “Est”, being short for the Latin Phrase “Vinum Est Bonum” – the wine is good.

When he got to the town of Montefiascone in northern Lazio, Martin was so impressed by the quality of the wines being served at one tavern that he excitedly scribbled “Est! Est!! Est!!!” on the door. When the Bishop arrived the next day, he agreed so heartedly with Martin’s opinion of the wine that he cancelled the rest of his trip and lived the rest of his life in Montefiascone, enjoying the good things in life and eventually dying from the overconsumption of his beloved Est! Est!! Est!!!

Bishop John Fugger is buried in Montefiascano in the Church of San Flaviano, where his inscription reads, “Est, Est, Est et propter nimium est, dominus meus, mortuus est!” which translates (loosely) as: ‘Est Est Est. He Died from too much Est.”

The legend of Bishop Fugger and his faithful manservant Martin is celebrated every August in Montefiascone with the town’s “Festival of Wine” known as the “Fiero del Vino”.  During this festival, hundreds of people in traditional costumes retrace the story of Est!  Est!! Est!!!, from Martin’s arrival at the tavern door until Bishop Fugger’s death from too much wine.  The festival ends with the dousing of his Bishop Fugger’s tombstone with a barrel of his beloved Est! Est!! Est!!!.