The Heritage of Meritage

BUZZ/WineBottles, 10/11/04, 4:06 PM, 8C, 7480x9180 (1026+977), 150%, GBTB Lo/Mid Co, 1/30 s, R118.0, G96.2, B116.0

Cabernet Sauvignon is the noblest of all grape varietals, achieving its most famous expression in the wines of the Bordeaux region of France, its ancestral homeland. Since the eighteenth century, Bordeaux winemakers have perfected the art of blending Cabernet with Merlot and Cabernet Franc along with smaller amounts of Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carménère (the famous "Bordeaux blend"). Since French wines are not designated by varietal, but by appellation, these Old World vintners enjoy freedom from legal restrictions to blend their wines in any manner they choose.

In this country, however, wines are classified by varietal and federal regulations mandate that a wine must contain a minimum of 75 percent of a particular grape to be labeled such a varietal. By the 1980s, consumers had come to equate stand-alone varietals with quality, denigrating blends to the status of unrefined "jug" or "table" wines. For the flourishing California wine industry, this created a thorny problem: premium winemakers who were crafting sumptuous blends in the Bordeaux tradition that couldn’t qualify for varietal status had no industry standard to communicate the quality of their wines to the public. Sales suffered.

In response, in 1988 a group of frustrated Napa vintners sponsored a nationwide contest to find a name they could trademark for their premium blends, selecting "Meritage," coined from the words "merit" and "heritage" (and intended to rhyme with "heritage").  The Meritage Association was chartered. For those opting to join the Association, the requirements were these: a red Meritage must be a classic Bordeaux-style blend, with no single varietal comprising more than 90 percent of the total; a white Meritage could contain only Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Production should be limited to only 25,000 cases per vintage.

For the wine lover, the Meritage designation assures quality — bold, complex Bordeaux-style reds and dry, elegant whites handcrafted from the very best grapes of the vintage.

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