Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What is a Meritage?

Lately, at Trader Joe's, we've had several Meritage blends to offer.  As a result, I've had more questions asking what a Meritage is.  In my monthly wine newsletter for our store, the feature article was "What is a Meritage."  That writing follows for you reading pleasure.

Once upon a time, many years ago, in a land far, far away, the term “Meritage” was born.  Wait, it was in California, so not so far away, and it happened in 1988, not that long ago, but before many of this store’s Crew Members were born (they’re so cute and young, aren’t they).

A group of California vintners, who were dedicated to producing wines made in the Bordeaux tradition of blending specific grape varietals, created the the term Meritage from the words merit and heritage.  In fact, the correct pronunciation of “Meritage” rhymes with “heritage.”  Although Bordeaux wines and hence, Meritage wines can be blends of either red or white varietals, today we’re talking about the red Meritage wines.

The guidelines state that at least two of the five traditional Bordeaux grapes must be blended (all five can be blended, if desired).  The five are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  No one grape can exceed 90% of the finished blend.  Other than that, there are no rules.

As in Bordeaux, the percentage of any given grape in a Meritage blend can vary vintage to vintage, depending on the crops that year.  And also as in Bordeaux, a Meritage wine emphasizes the region or appellation where the wine originates.  This is in contrast to naming a wine by its grape variety such as a Syrah, Zinfandel, or Cabernet.  So you’ll often see it called a “Napa Meritage,” or a “Central Coast Meritage.”

Each winemaker has many options when structuring his Meritage as each grape brings a unique quality to the final product.  Cabernet Sauvignon, for example is full of black fruit, particularly black currant, and has high acidity and tannin levels.  Merlot is more subtle and softer and offers more red-fruit character, such as cherry.  Cabernet Franc can be spicy and often adds floral notes.  Malbec adds rich color and red fruit, and Petit Verdot can also add rich color with firm tannins and some spiciness.

If you go to my blog, you’ll read of a blending class that we took at Conn Creek Winery in Napa.  I created my own Meritage using Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Malbec.  I did not include the Petit Verdot in my final blend as it had lost its typical varietal characteristics while in the barrel.  But what a fun experience!  Oh, and that Meritage won a prestigious blind wine-tasting up in the San Francisco area, but that’s another story.  I must remain humble.

Tom da Wine Guy


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