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The Merits of Meritage

By Ben Giliberti
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page F07

Take the word "merit" and combine it with "heritage." Mix well. What you have is Meritage, a relatively recent addition to the wine lexicon, coined to describe wines from California and elsewhere modeled on French Bordeaux. The Meritage concept was supposed to take the world by storm when it was introduced to the public by a group of American vintners in 1988. A decade and a half later, it hasn't quite worked out that way.

Despite the early hopes, Meritage hasn't revolutionized the way wine is made, turned the average wine consumer into a savvy connoisseur or made any winemaker rich who wasn't already. On the other hand, it hasn't faded into oblivion, which, quite frankly, was what I predicted when it was born.

So the question is: What exactly has become of Meritage?

First, some background is in order. Meritage was invented to solve a vexing problem: what to call a blended wine if it did not contain enough of one grape (75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, for example) to be designated as that grape on the label. By the late 1980s, American wine consumers had become conditioned to regard such varietally labeled wines as the epitome of quality. 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 art of blending and to distinguish these wines from the jug wine moniker "red table wine."

So the requirements for Meritage were set forth: A red Meritage wine must be made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, the classic Bordeaux grape varieties. The proportions may vary, but at least three of the grape varieties must be used. For white Meritage, only Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are permitted.

Though the idea of making premium quality blends was sound, the new name stumbled out of the starting gate. Before a single Meritage wine was bottled, there was debate about how to pronounce it. Did it rhyme with "heritage" or the more French sounding "meh-ri TAHJ"? Proponents of the first pronunciation cited its derivation from the words merit and heritage. On the other hand, the wines were modeled on French Bordeaux, and one of the most familiar French wines, Hermitage, which happened to be from Rhone, was pronounced "hehr-me-TAHJ." The dispute was soon settled by the Meritage Association, a nonprofit group whose purpose is to educate consumers on Meritage wines and promote wines blended in the Bordeaux tradition. The association was in favor of the heritage pronunciation.

The Meritage Association suffered initial rejection from many of the wineries that were its inspiration, such as the Mondavi-Rothschild Opus One, Christian Mouiex's Dominus and a Joseph Phelps Insignia. These and a few other wineries had pioneered the use of so-called proprietary names for their Bordeaux-type blends well before the formation of the Meritage group, and were among the most respected wines produced in California.

The current president of the Meritage Association, Michaela Rodeno, acknowledges that membership in the association isn't a prerequisite for producing a high-quality Bordeaux-style blend. But with 121 members today, up from a low of just 22 wineries when she assumed her leadership position in 1999, she has good reason to believe that Meritage is fulfilling its original charter to improve the quality and to promote the enjoyment of Bordeaux-style blends.

"We started out with a major challenge," she said. "The tremendous potential of blended wines was being ignored by consumers and by wineries. In Bordeaux, they had the freedom to blend Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and the other authorized grape varieties in whatever proportion would make the best wine in a particular vintage," she said. "In California, owing largely to the percentage requirements in varietal labeling laws, we didn't always have that freedom. And we wanted it. " Another problem, said Rodeno, was that the term Reserve, which once had been employed to denote only the finest wines in the best years, had been almost completely devalued through indiscriminant use by mass marketers of indifferent, often inexpensive wines. To prevent this from happening to the term Meritage, the association imposes strict requirements for the use of its trademarked name, limiting production to a level of 25,000 cases per year. The requirement that the Meritage wine be either the most expensive or second most expensive wine produced at the winery is a further assurance of quality.

Rodeno emphasizes, however, that Meritage is about style as well as quality. "The beauty of blended wines like Bordeaux and Meritage is that they are delicious to drink without necessarily needing a lot of aging," she said. Thus, the Meritage Association markets its wines as a high-quality alternative to the traditional Reserve-style Cabernet and Merlot, which can be hugely tannic, concentrated and difficult to enjoy in their youth. "The best Reserves are magnificent wines, but the reality is many consumers and restaurants are looking for complex, beautifully made wines that can be bought that day and served that night with dinner. That's the beauty of Meritage."

Can we come to an overall verdict on Meritage? In my view, against the odds, Meritage is a quiet success, with considerably more influence on consumer taste and preference than is apparent from its seemingly modest share of the total wine market. I don't think I'll ever learn to say the name without hesitating over the pronunciation, but by the same token, I don't expect ever to hesitate about drinking a nice bottle of it.

Wines of the Week

St. Supery Winery Red Meritage "Elu" 2000 ($50; Napa): Since Elu means "elected," St. Supery's newly renamed Meritage red should prove popular with at least half of Washington politicos as first Tuesday approaches. Though not achieveing the lofty complexity or depth of the much pricier Mondavi-Rothschild Opus One ($125), Elu 2000 clearly reflects the artful touch of Bordeaux's superstar consulting enologist Michel Rolland and is a notable success for the challenging 2000 vintage. Subtle red cherry and plum aromas lead to medium-bodied, layered palate of cassis and black fruit flavors. With modest tannins and a supple mouth feel, this is ready to drink now. Excellent effort.

Robert Pepi Sauvignon Blanc 2003 ($8; California): With super-fresh Granny Smith green apple and lemon-citrus notes on the nose and palate and melony, somewhat Pinot Grigio-like body, followed by zingy acidity on the finish, this crowd-pleasing Sauvignon Blanc is a terrific value. Don't be put off by the screw top, which is increasingly becoming the closure of choice for ready-to-drink whites, not because it is cheaper (it's not), but because it preserves the bright freshness of young wine. Perfect for casual imbibing with light aperitifs.

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