Meritage Wines Blend Quality and Taste

On a recent wine tasting trip to Paso Robles, I was surprised to see so many blended wines on the tasting menus. Blends are wines made up of different grape varieties, and it can be a mix of anything the winemaker wants to try.

I have participated in blending sessions at different wineries and I am always intrigued by how much a wine changes with the addition of a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Blending is the winemaker’s way of creating art in a glass. As an artist mixes paint on a canvas, the winemaker mixes tastes, science and color. With any kind of winemaking the winemaker’s intuition is important, but with blended wine the winemaker’s imagination can run wild. These wines can be extremely unique and that, unfortunately, has created a marketing dilemma.

Blended wines in the United States can only be labeled “red table wine,” and most of us associate red table wine with jug wine quality. “Red table wine” doesn’t say much about what grapes were used in the blend or where the grapes came from. The fact that label designs are highly governed by laws makes it very difficult to get changes to the designations.

In 1988, a group of American vintners in Napa formed The Meritage Association to identify hand-crafted wines blended from the traditional Bordeaux varietals.

Most American wines are labeled after the grape variety that comprises at least 75 percent of that wine. A label with “Cabernet Sauvignon” indicates that the wine is comprised of 75 percent or more of the grape variety Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many winemakers, however, believed the varietal requirement did not necessarily result in the highest quality wine from their vineyards. “Meritage” was coined to identify wines that represent the highest form of the winemaker’s art, blending and distinguish these wines from the more generic “red table wine.”

Meritage, pronounced like “heritage,” was selected from more than 6,000 entries in an international contest to name the new wine category. Meritage is an invented word that combines “merit” and “heritage.”

While many wineries prefer to use proprietary names in addition to, or rather than, Meritage to obtain a license, to have Meritage on the label a wine must meet the following criteria: A red Meritage is made from a blend of two or more of the following varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenere. A white Meritage is made from a blend of two or more of the following varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Vert. In both cases, no single variety may make up more than 90 percent of the blend.

Membership has increased from 22 wineries in 1999 to 111 today, and the Association opened its membership to Canadian wineries earlier this year, creating a unique international branding opportunity.

Locally, I have had the pleasure of tasting Leal Vineyards 2002 “Carnaval,” a San Benito County Meritage comprised of 88-percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7-percent Merlot and 5-percent Malbec.

“In the spirit of carnaval, a time of jubilee,” the label states, “we join in the festivities with the blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec. Deep and rich in color with subtle chocolate and coffee aromas, this Meritage reveals succulent ripe blackberry and plum flavors. It is big and chewy with a soft balanced finish.”

Certainly not your average “red table wine!”

I suggest you get familiar with blends by tasting to see what you like. Ask what grapes are in the blend and in what percentages. What’s great about Meritage wine is that the designation gives you a high quality blending framework to get familiar with a select group of grapes, yet the combinations and flavors are as diverse and expansive as the winemaker’s imagination.


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