Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mysterious Meritage

In your travels you might see wine labeled "Meritage" and wonder --not surprisingly -- just what it is.

Meritage wines are California's answer to Bordeaux blends and to labeling restrictions that require at least 75% of a wine's juice come from a single grape (like Cabernet Sauvignon) in order that it be labeled Cabernet.

In Bordeaux, however, where fabled and sought-after reds and whites are produced, the blend of juice in a wine is often much more even--say 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. These wines are simply labeled "Bordeaux" after the place they were made.

Here is the US, where bottles made with a single variety are the norm, consumers have sometimes looked askance at blended wines and assumed they represented lesser quality. Not so, says the Meritage Association, an organization founded in the US in 1988 to promote and produce blanded wines in the Bordeaux tradition. Blended wines can provide wine lovers with greater complexity, age-worthiness, and also a more affordable price--so what's not to like?

I recently tried two very good QPR Meritage blends that I think warrant a second look if you are looking for an affordable red blend that will go well with winter foods such as soups, stews, casseroles, and roasts.

The 2006 Hayman & Hill Meritage Reserve, for example, is made from a blend of 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot, and 6% Cabernet Franc fruit from Monterey County. (sample; available from $12-$17) Upon first opening, I smelled the traditional Bordeaux aromas of cassis, plum and spice. Flavors of plum turned more towards cherry as you sipped, and there were some oaky notes and good acidity. Over time, with air, the flavors became much richer and plummier and developed milk chocolate notes. I would expect this wine to improve over the next 12-18 months, although it is delicious now.

The 2006 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Meritage, on the other hand, is made with 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Petite Verdot, 7% Malbec, and 1% Cabernet Franc fruit from California. (sample; available for $8-$11). This is a very new release and was a bit hot upon first opening, but at 13.5% alc/vol I think this is a sign of youth. Once again I smelled the typical Bordeaux aromas of cassis and plum, and the flavors are dominated by rich plum. There are vanilla and mocha notes in the aftertaste which added complexity and contributed to the enjoyment of this easy-drinking red.

If you haven't tried Meritage and like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, you should give one of these blended reds a try.


Anonymous said...

Hi Deb,

From what I've been told, wineries must pay the Meritage Association a fee and become a member of their organization in order to use the trademarked term "Meritage" on their wines.

Thus, you'll find many bottlings, high end, even, comprised of blends similar to what you're describing, but without the "Meritage" designation due to a winery opting not to pay this fee.

I think the marketing aspect of the term "Meritage" is worth noting...

Just to add to the confusion!

dhonig said...

Believe it or not, Kendall Jackson makes a pretty good "Meritage" at a very reasonable price.

Anonymous said...

Meritage is indeed more of a marketing strategy. Note that there are very few white Meritage wines, but they are around.

You're sure to pay a premium for a wine that's labeled Meritage because of the fee paid to the organization. Not sure the Meritage organization and its label are picking up, as more and more consumers are introduced to blends in the "more reds" paragraph of restaurant wine lists or the "other reds" aisle at Bevmo.

After all, the huge majority of American Bordeaux-style blends are not labeled Meritage. Sonoma, Napa or even the Okanagan Valley are increasingly known for such blends. Some well-regarded wineries are not ashamed to recognize some Bordeaux styles are their source of inspiration, like Blackbird or Orin-Swift with their Papillon wine.

And since most Cabernet-labeled wines are blended anyway (usually with Merlot), and rarely feature 100% cabernet grapes, the Meritage label, in the end, is basically saying that there is no Syrah in the bottle (since many California cabs feature that varietal in small quantities).

Nancy said...

Such an interesting article and comments, too. This reminds me that one of the most obnoxious customers we ever had in the store was a guy who always came in bellowing that he wanted Meritage. He always spelled it and treated it as a brand name, like he was asking for Nike shoes. I don't think he had a clue what meritage is and why, which isn't a crime but it would have been nice if he could have listened to a bit of information now and then.

Ah, retail!