Like any good wine salesman, Jim Arseneault can instantly recite the names of all the wines his customers are clamoring for. But lately, he's become keenly aware of a name they're not asking for: meritage.
Arseneault has "almost never heard anyone ask for meritage" by name, yet sales of meritage-style wines have been brisk, he says.
What is meritage? It's a recently invented term being pushed by a 30-member consortium of high-profile California wineries for California wines made in a Bordeaux style using a blend of Bordeaux-type grapes.
Why is meritage selling so well? Simply because it tastes very good. Because meritages are a blend of as many as five grape varieties -- instead of just one as in cabernet sauvignon -- they can pile layer upon layer of complex flavors in a way that even dyed-in-the-wool California devotees had begun to suspect was the province of Bordeaux alone. Indeed, one sip is worth a thousand tedious seminars on the derivation of the meritage name (it comes from combining "merit" and "heritage"), and should earn these wines their due recognition.
So, why don't people know the name? Perhaps it's because as yet most meritage-type wines are not labeled as such. Also, customers may not know how to pronounce it ("meritage" as in "heritage"). Nevertheless, Arseneault's shelves devoted to meritage at MacArthur Liquors have been in constant need of replenishment, he reports. This is so despite the hefty price tags many of them carry on their Bordeaux-style, square-shouldered bottles.
The following meritage and meritage-type red wines are listed in order of preference. While none qualify as bargains, let's keep some perspective. The top three are clearly comparable to top classified growth Bordeaux, themselves no bargain, and several others are also quite impressive. Not included in this tasting are a number of other meritage blends that sell at the upper end of the price scale, typically around $40. These include Opus I, Dominus, Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon, Inglenook Reunion, Flora Springs Trilogy, Phelps Insignia, Andrus Reserve and Kendall-Jackson Cardinale. My experience with these wines is that they are first-rate wines -- but at prices that make them poor values.
Your retailer can order through the wholesaler listed in brackets. (Maryland and Virginia distribution may vary.) Prices are approximate.
Outstanding Pahlmeyer 1987 "Caldwell Vineyard" ($28-$35; Napa): This wine has fully lived up to the enormous promise it showed at the MacArthur Liquors California Futures Barrel in Washington more than two years ago. Still possessing the First Growth-caliber bouquet it displayed then, the flavors have deepened and opened up through additional cellar work by master winemaker Randy Dunn, who is retained by owner Jason Pahlmeyer to make the wine. Pahlmeyer uses all five major Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot. The contribution of the latter is evidenced by the arterial purple color, but the strength of this wine is that, with that exception alone, none of the other grape varieties is allowed to dominate any aspect of the wine. The upshot is a triumph of harmonious flavors, in which the gustatory sum is far greater than the component parts. (Wine Source)
Dry Creek Vineyards 1986 "Meritage" ($22; Dry Creek Valley): Along with neighbor Domaine Michel, this winery is proving the suitability of Dry Creek Valley, a zinfandel stronghold, to produce top-flight, Bordeaux-style reds. Far more impressive than the austere 1985 initial Dry Creek Meritage release, this luscious wine is so opulent and vivacious now that it would be almost criminal to condemn to several years in a dark cellar, even though it would undoubtedly mature into a fine claret-style wine with time. (DOPS)
Carmenet 1986 "Estate Bottled" ($17-$22; Sonoma Valley): Founded in 1980 to produce Bordeaux-style blends, Carmenet has improved every year since its trend-setting first release in 1982. Always possessing one of the most complex bouquets of any Meritage blend, the '86's smoky, almost charred oak bouquet calls to mind that of Chateau La Lagune in Bordeaux. On the palate the cherry and tobacco notes are refined and well integrated with solid cabernet herbal notes. Though delicious now, there's enough stuffing here to permit additional development in a cool cellar. (Wine Source)
Very Good Franciscan 1986 Oakville Estate "Meritage" ($15): With its Oakville holdings nestled among some of Napa's top estates -- Opus I and Silver Oak to name two -- it's not surprising that this somewhat underrated winery can produce wine with this much breed. The feel on the palate is broad and mouth-filling, with toasty oak and earthy, dusty Rutherford-like flavors to add complexity. Quite approachable, this wine is developing rapidly, and should be consumed within three years. (Forman)
Clos du Bois 1985 "Marlstone Vineyard" ($15; Alexander Valley): It's good to find a wine of this quality from the great 1985 vintage. I suspect that this subtle medoc-blend of cabernet (62 percent), merlot (28 percent), cabernet franc (7 percent) and malbec (3 percent) was passed over initially by many because its understated style didn't blow tasters away as some of the flashier '85s did. But with aging, the essential balance of the wine has come out. (Forman)
Guenoc 1987 "Meritage" ($28-$30; Guenoc Valley): This new Meritage entrant from the region just north of Napa is tasty. Though not terribly structured, it has an abundance of ripe, cedary fruit and a fine soft finish. But given the alternatives, it is significantly over-priced. (Forman; later availability)
Sterling 1987 "Three Palms Vineyard" ($18-$22; Napa): Lush, somewhat jammy fruit masks deceptively high levels of tannin. If this wine picks up a bit more complexity to complement its prodigious fruit, it will be outstanding. (Washington Wholesale)
Estancia 1987 "Meritage" Black Label ($10-$12; Alexander Valley): Comes closest to bringing Meritage to the critical $10 price that marks the border between the boutique zone and the cabernet mainstream. Lush and delicious now, this warm, pleasantly jammy offering is not intended for long-term cellaring and succeeds well on its own terms, offering immediate pleasure and patent value. (Forman)
Lyeth 1986 "Alexander Valley" ($22): Suffering a bit from recent bottling or travel sickness, not showing as well as it has on two previous tastings from cask. Based on prior tastings, the wine has a deep, fruity core wrapped around soft, yet moderate tannins, and a fine, spicy oak bouquet. In a few months, when it recovers, I fully expect it to be a refined, claret style wine.
Also Tasted Laurel Glen 1987 "Terra Rossa" ($15); Merryvale 1985 "Napa Valley Red Table Wine" ($22); Inglenook 1986 Niebaum Reserve Claret ($12); San Saba "Bocage" 1987 ($10)
Ben Giliberti is Washington-based freelancer who writes regularly about wine.