What is a Meritage Wine?


Question from Meredith: What is a meritage wine?

Reply: Hi, Meredith. Thanks for writing. A Meritage wine is an American-made (so far), Bordeaux-style blend. And, what’s a Bordeaux blend? It’s a blend made from grapes that come from Bordeaux and these are some very well-known varieties, indeed: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc. And also some varieties that aren’t so well known such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenere and Semillon. And, some truly obscure varieties: St. Macaire, Gros Verdot (red) and Muscadelle du Bordolais(white). The producer can make a red Meritage or a white one.

So, those are the permitted varieties for the blend and the blend rule is that it must include at least two of these varieties and no single variety should make up more than 90% of the blend. 

Do we need this complication in our lives? Probably not, but here’s why the Meritage Alliance came about. After the repeal of Prohibition some truly yucky wines with European regional names like Rhine Wine and Chianti were made in the US and offered for sale. This was misleading and the producers of the real thing, in Europe, weren’t too happy. 

Varietal wine, which is wine based on a dominant variety, came into fashion and also became the benchmark for quality wine in the US. The Federal varietal requirement is a minimum of 75% of the grape named on the label. 

As the 1950s and 60s rolled around, quality was really on the upswing, further reinforcing the image of varietal wine as the best (or at least that was the perception). 

The wine boom of the 1970s spurred new, high quality producers to open up shop. The reputation of California wine was getting stronger and stronger and the winemakers gained confidence. As this happened, and as these producers looked at what our European mentors were doing, they began to feel that the varietal requirements were tying their hands artistically. What if the Cabernet tastes better with 40% Merlot?

They could take a risk and just bottle the wine as “red table wine” – most people would assume it’s jug wine. Or they could tow the line and make a true varietal to play it safe. Or they could do what Joseph Phelps did: Make up a proprietary name. Bingo! The Phelps Insignia, a Meritage-style blend, is wildly popular to this day.

But, not every winery has Phelps’ cachet. Selling wine with a proprietary name was a high-risk tactic. So, the Meritage Alliance was born in 1988 to give its members kind of an endorsement as quality producers of blends rather than varietal wines. Members must adhere to the requirements of the Alliance in order to use the Meritage designation on the label.

By now, we’ve become very accustomed to blended wine: Field blends are popular, Rhone-style Syrah and Grenache blends are too. And, of course the Aussies have been very successful with their Shiraz/Merlot or Shiraz/Cabernet blends. So, selling blended wine isn’t so difficult any more. And, we feel very comfortable buying Insignia, Opus One or even wines called “Red Blend” whether or not they have the Meritage designation or not. 

Now, how to pronounce it: It’s not French. It combines the words “merit” and “heritage” and rhymes with heritage. 

That’s a long answer to a short question! Thanks, again, for writing! 

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