Merit system

Would you pay top dollar for "red table wine"?

Wine experts might be guilty of occasional pretension, but sometimes we read snobbery into the wine world that isn't there. For instance, how would you pronounce "meritage," a word appearing on a growing number of wine bottles? More often than not, I hear "mer-i-TAHJ," which presumes some sort of lofty French-ness. But "meritage" is simply a made-up word ― a contest-winning merger of "merit" and "heritage" that rhymes with the latter. It was invented to identify an awfully good but potentially misunderstood group of wines made from blends of the classic Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec (or Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Sauvignon Vert for white). Until the early 1980s, a blend like that might have been called Cabernet Sauvignon, because a wine had to contain only 51 percent of a variety to be labeled as such. But it likely would have been shoddy, since makers tended to use that freedom to "blend down."

Blending up the best

Ironically, about the time regulators responded to the mediocrity and raised the varietal content requirement to 75 percent, many vintners were becoming convinced that the best wine might not be 100 percent ― or even 80 percent ― Cabernet Sauvignon. It might be 62 Cab, 18 Merlot, 14 Cab Franc, and so on. They were blending up. Trouble was, the only legal name for the mix was ― and still is ― "red table wine," a tag people might associate with schlock.

Two strategies emerged. Early blenders, like Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps Vineyards, gave their Bordeaux-style blends creative names and relegated the table-wine bit to small print. The Phelps "Insignia" has since become a yummy, if pricey, legend. The second approach was to coin a new name for Bordeaux blends and try to persuade the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to recognize it. Thus, the Meritage Association ― now some 125 wineries strong ― was born.

The fact that the ATF has never recognized Meritage wines as a category doesn't reduce their quality. As Michaela Rodeno, chair of the Meritage Association and CEO of St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery, explains, a Meritage ― which has to contain at least two of the Bordeaux grapes but no more than 90 percent of one ― is one of a winery's best wines. "It's a winemaker's license to play."

St. Supéry's own 2000 Meritage, named Élu ("elected"), is a beautiful wine from a tough year, full of dark cherries and cedar. In a blending session at the winery, you can test your skills against winemaker Michael Beaulac's ($75 per person, reservations required; 800/942-0809 ext. 47). It's a hoot deciding if your Cabernet Sauvignon needs a few more milliliters of Petit Verdot to shore up some flabbiness.

That's all the winemakers are doing. Even if the Meritage moniker added to the things many of us don't know about wine, there's nothing stuffy about Bordeaux blends.

Our picks

Bordeaux blends are some of the most prestigious wines made in the West, and generally are priced accordingly. They're perfect for winter ― especially when a roast is coming out of the oven.

Beaulieu Vineyard "Tapestry" 2001 (Napa Valley), $40. Rich and concentrated, with hints of vanilla, dark chocolate, espresso, licorice, and sweet pipe tobacco. A hedonistic mouthful.

Harrison Vineyards "Claret" 2001 (Napa Valley), $37. Think Bordeaux: terrific structure, fine tannins, and loads of cassis, earth, and vanilla flavors, finishing with attractive blackberry pie notes.

Robert Craig "Affinity" 2001 (Napa Valley), $40. Enticing juxtaposition of earth, mineral, and fruit flavors, with notes of cocoa, eucalyptus, and espresso ― keeps you coming back for another sip.

Sebastiani "Secolo" 2001 (Sonoma County), $30. Inviting, juicy blackberry aromas; flavors reminiscent of vanilla, dark chocolate, and espresso, and a long finish. A substantial wine that tastes like it costs a lot more than it does. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

Sunset's Wine Club

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