Making Sense of ‘Meritage’

How the badge indicates that an American wine blend reaches Bordeaux-level quality

A lot of people avoid blended wines, especially reds, because they think that a wine must be inferior if the label doesn’t state what specific grape made the wine, be it cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, or zinfandel.

And that’s a shame.

Such thinking is a little odd, considering that the very best red wines tend to be blends of two or three grapes.

For example, most of the best Bordeaux wines — excepting a few such houses as Chateau Petrus, which is all merlot grape — are made by blending mostly merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and sometimes a little petit verdot or carmenere.

Blending wine is essentially building it to make a finer, better product. The process is oddly similar to pouring concrete for highways or walkways, or making strong walls, buttresses, and bridges. Sand, concrete, and water make the basic fluid blend. And once steel mesh or rebar are added, the mix becomes stronger and lasts longer.

Likewise, the winemaker needs to decide where he or she desires to take the wine; what will be the balance of the merlot for beauty and cabernet sauvignon for roundness and texture, giving the wine its appearance. And then cabernet franc, which serves as the rebar or steel, provides the assurance of the wine’s permanence or ageability. Finally, petit verdot may be added for silkiness and color.

In France, until recently, nobody much cared which grapes went into bottles or at what percentage. The wine from “Marcel WineDrinker’s” favorite little chateau might have varied hugely from year to year, depending on what the winemaker decided about the blend. But it always came out on the shelf under the same name, with the same label. The vintage was the only thing that changed each year.

In the U.S., our rules allow wine to be called by a grape stated on the label only if 75 percent of what is in the bottle is indeed that grape. Anything lower requires another name, such as including the winery’s name or the addition of something like “Symphony” or “Conundrum.”

Basically, we blend in the same way as do the Europeans, but they can — and do — vary the proportions or percentages far more than our limited American 75 percent rule.

That very much is how and why the term Meritage came about on American wine labels. In 1985, a group of California winemakers were frustrated with the rules. They came up with a new category name — a blend of “merit” and “heritage” — under which they could make wines of high distinction. These wines would be made in the same proportions and with the same grapes used in Bordeaux, and without being penalized for infringing on the Bordeaux region’s legal protections.

The term Meritage on a label today signifies that the winery is offering a wine in the category and quality levels of the best of France. Effectively, these American wineries have been approved to use the term because they have shown that they are able to deliver Bordeaux chateau-level wines.

Although they can’t say it that way, I can.