Meritage wines

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot are the main ingredients in meritage wine, which blends several grape varieties. "Meritage" rhymes with "heritage."

What the French call “Bordeaux,” we call a “red blend” or even “table wine.” Bordeaux wine is essentially a blend based on merlot or cabernet sauvignon, made in southwest France.

But domestic winemakers found that “red blend” didn’t have the same cache with consumers as its French counterpart, even if the grapes and methods were the same. So in 1988, a group of winemakers came up with a new name: “meritage,” a combination of “merit” and “heritage.” (It rhymes with the latter.)

In addition to merlot and cabernet sauvignon, red meritage wines may also include cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and carmenère. White meritage, which is difficult to find in the Madison area, is made from sauvignon blanc, semillon and a blending grape called Muscadelle du Bordolaise.

My wine group, fresh off of a big holiday tasting with some 18 bottles, recently tried a few red meritage wines ranging in price from $11 to $37. (The $37 bottle, an Oregon blend, is not available locally but since the newer vintage can be purchased online and was so delicious, I’m including it.)

We started with the ’09 Sterling “Vintner’s Collection” Meritage ($11 at Copps), mostly cabernet sauvignon (66 percent) with 24 percent merlot and touches of malbec and petit verdot rounding out the blend. It had chewy tannins (the slightly bitter flavor caused by the skins of grapes) and smoky cigar box flavors, but it was a little thin and the finish fell short.

More interesting was the ’09 Make Work “The Plan” ($32 at Barriques in Fitchburg), a Sonoma County blend from Hobo Winery. The Plan could technically be called a cabernet sauvignon, since it was 75 percent of that varietal (that’s the lower limit for a single-varietal name). It was an unusual wine, with a bright acidity in the bouquet and, at least at first, the lightness of a pinot noir. It had vegetal flavors and lots of pepper, spice and mocha. One taster said it reminded him of stinging nettles. This was not a wine for the fruit lovers among us.

One pair of tasters picked up the ’06 Tyrus Evan Ciel du Cheval ($37 at madwine.com) while visiting the winery in Oregon. Made by Ken Wright, the smell of this wine was simply gorgeous, full of nutmeg, dried tart cherries, vanilla and a hint of oak. The finish was smooth and long, well-balanced and ripe.

From Livermore, Calif., just east of San Francisco, came the ’09 Concannon “Crimson and Clover” ($14 at Barriques in Fitchburg), named for the winemaker’s father. The C&C is technically not a meritage, as it’s made primarily from petite sirah. We found it to be smooth, fruity and simple, with hints of licorice and (no kidding) Jagermeister in the smell. Even at just 13.7 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), we tasted the heat.

My cabernet-loving uncle was the first to bring Duckhorn Winery to my attention, after he visited Napa Valley last year. The ’09 Decoy ($18 at Woodman’s East) is a blend of almost equal cabernet sauvignon and merlot (with small amounts of cab franc and petit verdot), aged for a year in French oak. The wine opened nicely after a few swirls in the glass, big, rich fruit with chewy tannins and a pleasing tartness.

Finally, we returned to Washington with one of the wines I tried recently in Milwaukee. The ’08 Basel Cellars Claret ($17 at Steve’s on University) includes syrah in the blend, which means it’s technically not a meritage either — we had to bend the rules based on what we could find locally. Whatever you call it, this claret was fantastic, opening with tart fruit flavors and tobacco with lots of earth and spice at the end.

“This is a serious wine,” one taster said. I’ll drink to that.

Lindsay Christians occasionally pours wine tastings at Barriques.

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