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

SARA SCHNEIDER

Wine experts might be guilty of occasional pretension, butsometimes we read snobbery into the wine world that isn't there.For instance, how would you pronounce "meritage," a word appearingon 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-winningmerger of "merit" and "heritage" that rhymes with the latter. Itwas invented to identify an awfully good but potentiallymisunderstood group of wines made from blends of the classicBordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, PetitVerdot, and Malbec (or Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and SauvignonVert for white). Until the early 1980s, a blend like that mighthave been called Cabernet Sauvignon, because a wine had to containonly 51 percent of a variety to be labeled as such. But it likelywould have been shoddy, since makers tended to use that freedom to"blend down."

Blending up the best

Ironically, about the time regulators responded to themediocrity and raised the varietal content requirement to 75percent, many vintners were becoming convinced that the best winemight 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 namefor the mix was ― and still is ― "red table wine," atag people might associate with schlock.

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

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

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

That's all the winemakers are doing. Even if the Meritagemoniker 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 inthe West, and generally are priced accordingly. They're perfect forwinter ― especially when a roast is coming out of theoven.

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

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

Robert Craig "Affinity" 2001 (Napa Valley), $40. Enticingjuxtaposition of earth, mineral, and fruit flavors, with notes ofcocoa, eucalyptus, and espresso ― keeps you coming back foranother sip.

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

Sunset's Wine Club

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