Thursday, November 13, 2014

Meritage—California’s answer to Claret

Bordeaux, France is well known as one of the world’s greatest wine producing regions. The red wines from Bordeaux (known as Claret by the British) are almost all blended wines and can contain one or more of only the following grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere. Carmenere is rarely used anymore because of difficulty getting it to ripen. It has been introduced to Chile, where it has become that country’s signature red grape.

In 1988, a group of Napa Valley vintners banded together and petitioned the BTFA to allow them to start a brand for a blend that would be considered on par with single varietal wines. The group sponsored a contest to name the brand and 6000 people responded. The winning name was “Meritage”, a cross between “heritage” and “merit.” Although many people try to pronounce it “mer-eh-TAZH”, the proper pronunciation rhymes with “heritage.”

For “Meritage” to be on the label, the wine must have only the allowed Bordeaux grape varietals with no more than 90% being any one varietal, and the winery must be a member of the Meritage Alliance.

There are a great many of these wines on the shelves, and many of them are outstanding. Some are labeled Meritage, some call themselves Claret, and some have names that don’t suggest their blend. They can be very structured and complex, resembling the French wines they are patterned after. They tend to be more fruit forward and less earthy than Bordeaux and are usually less tannic, although the latter characteristic varies widely. They are great wines to have with roasted, grilled, and braised red meats, game, and strongly flavored hard cheeses.

Marietta Cellars, maker of the very popular Old Vine Red, has just released a new wine called Arme’ that is outstanding. Primarily Cabernet with some Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, this wine has wonderful aromatics of red fruits, mocha, and espresso. There is cassis and red cherry fruit on the palate supported by superbly integrated but ample tannins. This is worth every bit of the $24.99 price tag. The same four grapes are used in Coppola’s Diamond Collection Claret producing wonderful plum, blackberry, anise, and espresso aromas and flavors. Supple tannins make this very approachable, and at $15.99, it is a great bargain.

Newton Claret 2010 is a delicious wine made from Merlot, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot. Aromas of mocha, expresso, and dark red cherries are followed by vanilla, red fruit, and plum on the palate. Supporting tannins add just enough complexity and structure to balance the fruit. 

Finally, Lyeth Merita 2011, made from the all five of the classic Bordeaux grapes, demonstrates aromas of black cherry and currants with subtle notes of dark chocolate. Flavors of cassis and boysenberries are prominent on the palate with a hint of roasted coffee joining on the ample finish. There are supporting but not interfering tannins giving a good backbone to this surprisingly inexpensive wine ($14.99).

It is possible to enjoy the structure and complexity of Cabernet based blends without heading for the Bordeaux section, especially if one prefers the bigger fruit of New world wines to the mineral driven, less fruit forward style of old world wines.

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