Recent scuttlebutt about Meritage has people wondering where this relatively new wine originated. Meritage is a red or white wine blend handcrafted from specific Bordeaux grape varieties, typically the best of its vintage. It’s been referred to as “American Bordeaux.” It’s quickly increasing in popularity and is one of the fastest-growing wine categories in the United States.
So, where does Meritage come from? In 1988, a group of California vintners banded together to create a recognizable propriety name for their high-quality blends. United States label laws restrict grape varietals from being noted on a wine label unless the wine consists of at least 75 percent of the varietal. Often, wines without a varietal listed on the label suffer from a perception that they are of lesser quality. On the contrary, many winemakers believe the Old World art of blending can result in the highest quality wines. The vintners of the alliance wanted a way to note these wines to consumers. Thus, Meritage was born.
Meritage gets its name from combining “merit” with “heritage.” “Merit” represents the quality of the grapes and “heritage” reflects the Old World tradition of blending. Though many people, including many wine experts, often mispronounce Meritage, giving it a French-sounding ending that rhymes with “garage,” Meritage actually rhymes with “heritage.” (At a recent wine tasting, I was incorrectly “corrected” four times by wine pourers — and even a winemaker!)
To produce a Meritage, alliance members pay a fee per case and follow strict labeling rules. Producers are highly encouraged to limit production to 25,000 cases and use only their best blends.
A red Meritage is a blend of two or more of the following varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carménère. A white Meritage is a combination of two or more of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, or Muscadelle du Bordelais. Neither can consist of more than 90 percent of any one varietal. The result? Typically, these blends have great aging potential while being very enjoyable in their youth.
Today, the Meritage Alliance has 250 members. In Michigan, five wineries have joined the alliance and are producing Meritage: Cherry Creek Cellars of Albion, Fenn Valley Vineyards of Fennville, Leelanau Wine Cellars of Omena, Lemon Creek Winery of Berrien Springs, and St. Julian Winery of Paw Paw. Having tasted all of them myself, I’ve recently become a huge fan of Meritage … no matter how you pronounce it!