Heritage Lesson: The origins of California’s meritage wine

Pinky aloft, lips pursed and eyes aflame, a pretentious gentleman proudly announces, “I do love a meritaahge.” After processing the pronunciation faux pas, I quell the subliminal urge to punch him in the face, and then, with as much obnoxious affect as I can muster, I correct him: “Meritage rhymes with heritage.” The impulse to mispronounce this decidedly French-sounding wine name is strong, and this California-birthed wine is often misconceived. But the question is … why should we even care?

We should care because meritage is a trendy wine in the snob circles with growing popularity within the normal ranks. The fancy term describes a blend of two or more Bordeaux grape varieties, specifically cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet Franc, malbec and several others. White meritage is a blend of two grapes originating from Bordeaux, like sauvignon blanc and semillon.

And we should care because blending adds complexity to a wine, allowing a winemaker to get the maximum amount of flavor out of a vineyard — doubly important in bad vintage years.

The growing popularity of meritage represents a shift in American wine perception. In Europe, blends are the norm, not the exception, but the U.S. has historically been the opposite. On our shelves, you see “cabernet sauvignon” or “chardonnay” on the labels, but blended wines are identified as “table wines.” And that’s about as sexy as margarine. Over the years, clever wineries, in order to offset this uninspiring moniker, created fanciful titles for their blends like Goats du Roam, Primus or Da Red to set themselves apart. Then, in 1988, a group of three wineries — Cosentino, Flora Springs and Quintessa — set out to define an American blend of Bordeaux grapes, calling it meritage. The name, the result of a worldwide contest, originates from two words: “merit” and “heritage.” Thus the pronunciation.

In order to post “meritage” on a label, a winery must belong to the Meritage Association, a nonprofit that charges up to $500 per year for membership — depending on the number of cases a winery produces. There are over 150 members in the United States, scattered all over the country, as well as members in four other countries outside the U.S.: Mexico, Australia, Israel and Canada. (For a complete list, see www.meritagewine.org).

Since every winemaker mixes his or her blend differently, it’s difficult to define what a meritage tastes like. But they are normally pretty gutsy, yet elegant and fruity. You’ll find the red version — the whites are few and far between — more often now on wine lists and on wine shop shelves than ever before. Taste a few, and when you hear “meritaaahge,” help us all out by correcting the blunder. The original founders are even helping — petitioning Merriam-Webster to create an entry for meritage, permanently defining it (and pronouncing it) for generations to come.

Recommended Wines

Flora Springs 2003 Trilogy Meritage Napa Valley Sweet, fragrant cherries and soft, elegant vanilla define this gorgeous wine. Sophisticated and sublime. Sw = 2. $60. 4.5 stars

Hahn 2004 Meritage Central Coast Perky with black pepper and soft, mellow cherry. Good value. Sw = 1. $16. 4 stars

Lyeth 2002 Meritage Sonoma Valley Delicate blueberry and ripe cherry make this one taste like a summer evening. Lovely finish of fruit. Sw = 2. $16. 4 stars

Dry Creek Vineyard 2002 Meritage Velvety and full of roasted black cherries with a touch of oak. Sw = 1. $28. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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