Red Wine Basics: Meritage

A glass of the California Meritage wine Opus O...
A glass of the California Meritage wine Opus One from Napa Valley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
First let’s get the pronunciation right. I’m a words person, so I love languages and pronunciation and all that good stuff. When I saw the word Meritage, I was thinking French, so probably merit-aaahge like collage. However, the name is actually a combination of the words Merit and Heritage and is pronounced as such, sounding like heritage. Now that we have the specifics out of the way, let’s get down to business!

The Meritage Association
Meritage is a Bordeaux-style blend of red or white grape varieties. The Meritage Association, now called the Meritage Alliance, was founded in 1988 by a group of vintners in Napa Valley, California. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives apparently stipulates that wines be classified as varietals when one grape variety constitutes more than 75% of the wine. Being held to these standards was frustrating to wine growers.

A Classic Blend
Vintners wished to be able to create Bordeaux-style blends without being held to percentage guidelines that would result in the classification of such blends as "table wines". Of course, they could not name this style of wine Bordeaux, as this would infringe on the Bordeaux region’s legally protected right to the appellation, so a contest was held, bringing in over 6000 entries! Meritage was the chosen name for this new, yet completely classic style of wine.

Meritage Alliance Membership
Meritage Alliance membership has increasingly begun to spread outside of the U.S. to other countries including Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Israel and Mexico. Members must adhere to rules laid down to protect the integrity of the namesake. It is recommended that bottles labeled Meritage are top blends, and certainly never the bottom of the barrel! It is also not meant to be a mass-produced wine, with no more than 25,000 cases to be produced by member wineries.

Red Meritage
Meritage can be a red or white wine, though white is much less common. A red Meritage must include at least two of the following varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carmenère with no one variety comprising more than 90%.

White Meritage
A red Meritage must include at least two of the following varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Sèmillon or Muscadelle du Bordelais with no one variety comprising more than 90%.

My Tasting Experience
I located a bottle of Meritage the other night and gave it a try. I bought a bottle of Sterling Vintner’s Collection Meritage. The bottle cost around $8. It included a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec at 13.5% alcohol. This was my first attempt at actually tasting a wine rather than gulping it, so go easy on my assessment!

Cherry, Vanilla and Chocolate
The first thing I noticed was the lovely color; very dark red, nearly purple. The alcohol taste was very strong, leading to a very warm, long lasting finish. I would say it had medium body. I picked out the taste of cherry and vanilla, very lightly. In the aftertaste, I thought I detected dark chocolate. The flavors were very complex, and I imagine this wine contains relatively high levels of tannins. It’s hard to tell without having any tasting experience to compare with, but I guess you have to start somewhere!

This completes my exploration of Meritage. Join me next time for a talk about Ice Wine.

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Louise Bryant

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