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Success Elusive After 20 Years of 'Meritage'
By Gerald D. Boyd
Jan 1, 2008
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This year, The Meritage Association marks its 20th Anniversary.  It is an auspicious occasion for a group of wineries that has worked hard for two decades to assure that the Meritage style of white and red wines becomes an indelible part of the New World wine landscape.

In 1988, a group of American vintners came together to market Bordeaux-style red and white wines that do not qualify for the varietal designation of 75% or more of the stated grape variety.  According to the association's web site, 'Many winemakers believed the varietal requirement did not necessarily result in the highest quality wine from their vineyards.'

It's a little unclear who formed the seed group, but the people I spoke with agree that David Stare of Dry Creek Vineyard, Chip Lyeth of Lyeth Vineyards, Richard Graf of Chalone Vineyards, Agustin Hunneus, then with Franciscan Vineyards, Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino Winery, Jason Pahlmeyer of Pahlmeyer, Julie Garvey of Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards and wine writer Dan Berger were in the founding group.

In the early days, there were only a handful of California wineries that belonged to the Meritage Association; the original concept applied only to California wines, then later to other New World wines.

Michaela Rodeno, CEO of St. Supery Winery in the Napa Valley and one of the early advocates for Meritage wines, says the association is making progress, albeit slowly. Today, nearly 200 wineries in 18 states and five foreign countries -- Argentina, Australia, Canada, Israel, Mexico -- make Meritage wines. That small number would be out of thousands of New World wineries that produce a white or red blended wine that would qualify as a Meritage wine. 

Why more wineries have not signed on in the 20 years since the founding of the Meritage Association is a question the association continues to ponder.  One theory is that many wineries have already developed a proprietary name and they see no need to change or join the association.

A number of wineries known for high-end wines -- Joseph Phelps Insignia, Opus One -- are not members of the association, preferring to use their proprietary names without the addition of 'Meritage' on the label. Another ongoing problem that now seems to be dissolving is placement of a Meritage section on restaurant wine lists.  Rodeno says 'The real shame is when Meritage blends are submerged in the Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc sections. But I still see plenty of Meritage sections on wine lists as I travel around the country.'

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

From the beginning, most people, including many members of The Meritage Association, gave the new name a French pronunciation, adding to the confusion about the identity of these new wines and how they differ, if at all, from other proprietary blends made from Bordeaux varieties.  Although the name continues to cause confusion, none of the association members I spoke with believe that a different name would help to better promote the category.

Simply put, a Meritage wine is a blend of two or more red or white Bordeaux grapes, with no single variety making up more than 90 percent of the blend.  To obtain a license and use the term Meritage a red wine must be made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenere.

Allowed grapes for a white Meritage include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Vert.  Association membership has been polled twice since 1999 to possibly loosen the rules on required varieties, such as allowing up to 10% non-Bordeaux grapes, but to no avail.

Although technically allowed, obscure varieties like St. Macaire and Sauvignon Vert are scarcely planted in the New World, relegating Meritage blends to the same varieties used for similar blends not called Meritage.  My memory from the late 1980s is that Muscadelle of Bordeaux was the third legal variety for white Meritage.  According to Mitch Cosentino, the Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) recognizes Sauvignon Vert as a synonym for Muscadelle.

Adding to the confusion, The Oxford Companion to Wine, an authoritative reference, says that Sauvignon Vert is a synonym for Sauvignonasse and that the limited plantings of Sauvignon Vert in California are in fact Muscadelle of Bordeaux.  That probably explains why a handful of white Meritage wines are blends of only Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. 

To date, just nine wineries produce a white Meritage. Kim Stare Wallace of Dry Creek Vineyard believes the reasons for so few white Meritage wines is that the allowed grapes are not widely grown in California and 'there seems to be less interest by the trade and public in buying these white blends, so most vintners prefer to make something they can actually sell.'

Rodeno agrees, adding that Sauvignon Blanc accounts for only four percent of the total U.S. market and Semillon is a rarity in California vineyards.  Mitch Cosentino points out, however, that his Novelist white Meritage is based on Semillon and is modeled on the vaunted Bordeaux white blend Haut Brion Blanc.

Despite these seeming roadblocks to success, reports from those members I talked with indicate that the Meritage category is growing. Wallace says that 'if anything, restaurants who develop separate Meritage sections (on their wine list) help differentiate these wines from all the other wines on their list which, in turn, helps the consumer understand that these are separate blends, not at all the same as varietal wines."

Rodeno says the Meritage concept is a success to the extent people know what Meritage means and it helps them make buying decisions. But in a more reflective moment, she sees an ongoing fight for acceptance of the concept from the wine drinking public and the very government function that regulates its existence.

'I do believe that the word itself is almost instinctively understood to connote quality (merit), which is certainly a key part of the message," she said. "Will the TTB ever amend the FAA (Federal Alcohol Act) to make Meritage a class and type (which would be very useful) -- no hope.'
 
Of the more than 200 Meritage wines available, I tasted just 16 for this column, the majority from California, ranging in price from a modest $18 for Cosentino Winery's white 2006 The Novelis to St. Supery's red 2003 Elu at $65.  The average Meritage costs about $23, with white Meritage generally less expensive than the red.

The two Meritage white wines tasted, both blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, were pleasant but not exciting.  Curiously, Cosentino's The Novelist ($18) had the lowest percentage of Semillon (20%) but was more melon and citrus, while the St. Supery 2006 Virtu 2006 ($25) was more than twice the amount of Semillon (48%) but smelled and tasted like a grassy Sauvignon Blanc with a subtle hint of ripe figs.

The non-California Meritage wines were all red were from New Mexico and Virginia.  Tasting these wines with their California equivalents, I found it necessary to remind myself that the wines were leaner in structure, with more herbaceous components and less of the upfront fruitiness of the California Bordeaux-style blend.

Overall I thought that Casa Rodena (New Mexico) and First Colony (Monticello, Virginia) were noticeably herbal/minty with short finishes, while Breaux Vineyards and Rappahannock (both Virginia) showed good levels of dark fruits with roasted coffee notes and good length through the finish.

California Meritage reds sampled in this tasting ranged in price from $20 to $65, a broad span, leading one to expect quality differences. The less expensive wines were pleasant and fruity and the more expensive ones showed more personality, layered complexity and evidence of costly new French oak.

For value, Norman Vineyards' 2003 No Nonsense Red Meritage ($20) from Paso Robles offered dense black fruits, smoky accents and a touch of chocolate in the finish.  Callaway's Temecula Valley Winemaker's Reserve Meritage 2003 ($45) has layered plump blackberry flavors, firm tannins and good length, and Franciscan's 2004 Napa Valley Magnificat ($50) is a nicely structured wine with smoky oak, dark fruits and hints of exotic spice.

More detailed tasting notes for six of my favorite wines from the Meritage tasting can be found in the Wine Reviews section.

Click here for Gerald's Meritage tasting notes.

Email Gerald at gboyd@winereviewonline.com.