Thursday, January 18, 2007

It's pronounced the same as heritage...

~I am talking about Meritage—don’t say Meri-tahge.
~It is a made up word, this Meritage. Unlike words like Chablis or Burgundy, Meritage has no legal standing in wine regulations. But it is a trademarked word, and that has its own legal standing; its use identifies mainly New World wines produced from the grapes that were made famous in the Old World of Bordeaux.
~Here’s an excerpt from the Meritage Association’s Web site:

“In 1988, a group of American vintners formed The Meritage Association to identify handcrafted wines blended from the traditional "noble" Bordeaux varietals.”

~Oh how I wish there were a legal standing behind rules of grammar. I'll say it again: wine varietals are adjectives, grape varieties are nouns. If the Meritage Association is talking about noble Bordeaux grapes, then they ought to call them “varieties” not “varietals.” In a later paragraph the association uses the ill-advised construction, “comprised of,” but I am digressing too much…
~The original Meritage idea was born in 1988 as a reaction against the federal government ruling for varietal labeling, which requires that 75 percent of the wine’s volume be derived from the grape name used on the label to identify the wine. In other words, a wine labeled Cabernet Sauvignon need be only 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; the remaining 25 percent can be from any variety. I don’t particularly like the 75 percent rule, but I also don’t find conforting the Meritage Association’s fix for the rule. Here is an excerpt:

“Many winemakers…believed the varietal requirement (the 75 percent rule) 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 winemaker's art, blending...”

~From what I understand of the federal regulations, a winemaker who chooses to produce a 100 percent varietal wine can go right ahead and do so. Plus, a winemaker who chooses to blend doesn’t necessarily have to give the wine a varietal name—it can have a proprietary name or it can come with a list of the blend with percentages of each variety.
~In other words, winemakers can produce wine that results in the highest quality from their vineyards whether or not they blend, and they can do it in any combination of blending that they choose—they just have to name the wine within the blend percentage guidelines.
~I simply don’t see what the word Meritage does to make the situation any better. Plus, the federal guidelines apply to all wines, and all blends. Meritage applies to only a select few grapes—the few from Bordeaux. Is the Meritage Association claiming that all other wine regions and grapes are inferior? I certainly hope not.
~I seem to remember, as many others who have followed this subject, that when the Meritage Association established itself there were some rules laid down relating to what constituted a Meritage blend—I think it had to do with certain percentages of each variety and something about a quality statement or at least a minimum quality parameter.
~In Europe (including Bordeaux) before a producer can tack an official regional designation on the label the wine must meet a variety of standards that cover things like grape varieties, percentages in the blend, harvest parameters, alcohol levels, barrel aging timelines, and so on. I recently checked on the Meritage Association rules and I can’t find parameters that guarantee much of anything except a limitation to produce wine from the few grape varieties allowed.

According to the Web site, if a Meritage wine is red the grapes in the blend might be any combination that includes at least two of the following: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, and two truly obscure Bordeaux red grapes. A white Meritage blend might be any combination of at least two of the following: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and the relatively obscure Sauvignon Vert.

In addition, a wine is still a Meritage when any one of the allowed varieties makes up as much as 90 percent of the blend. Yet, Meritage “…was coined to identify wines that represent the highest form of the winemaker's art, blending…”

~To me, 90 percent of any one grape variety seems counterintuitive to the elevation of the art of blending. At 90 percent, the wine would be allowed a varietal label under federal regulations, which seems to me to carry more weight than the 75 percent rule, especially in our varietal-centric New World market.
~Wineries have to pay for a license to use the Meritage trademark on their label. If I were a wine producer I would gladly pay the price, had the association kept its initial focus. But as it stands today, a Meritage label assures only that a minimum of two of the allowed grapes will be contained in the blend. I read the Web site and came up with no other assurance. I simply don’t see the point of paying for the privilege of producing under a system as meaningful (or as meaningless, depending upon perspective) as the 75 percent rule.
~It seems to me that Meritage is merely marketing.

Disclaimer: I was drinking wine a little before the New World penchant for varietal labeling had exploded globally. My early wine experience was mainly with European wines, which taught me to mostly trust wine regions or place names as well as producer names rather than to follow grape names.

~I have never worried about how much of which grapes were blended into a wine, and I still don’t. I worried only whether or not the wine represented its place of birth and whether or not it was to my liking. In that regard, I remain a curmudgeon.

Link to: Meritage,

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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