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Understanding AVA: Meritage

In California wines, you will see a blend called Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”), but what does that mean?

Meritage is a portmanteau of the words “merit” and “heritage.”  It is used in regards to the merit of the noble Bordeaux grapes that make up these blends and a testament to the heritage of California’s inheritance of great vines and expressions of these varietals from Bordeaux.

Meritage wines are defined as red blends from California that include at least two of the noble red grapes of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carménère, Saint-Macaire, and Gros Verdot) or white blends from California that include at least two of the noble white grapes of Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle du Bordelais).  There is no room for “other” grapes, so no Syrah, no Chardonnay, no Sangiovese, etc.  The finished product cannot exceed 90% of one type of grape to qualify as well.  How does that look?

Meritage (just a few examples):

  • 85% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot, 1% Carménère.
  • 75% Cabernet Franc, 25% Merlot.
  • 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 19% Sémillon, 1% Muscadelle du Bordelais.
  • 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% Sémillon.

Not Meritage (again, just a few examples):

  • 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot.
  • 95% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot.
  • 95% Sémillon, 5% Sauvignon Blanc.
  • 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 2% Syrah.

The best part of Meritage wines can be broken down into two distinct points:

  1. Classic grapes the French don’t even use today!  Gros Verdot is no longer allowed (banned) in any Bordeaux AOC wine in France as of 1946.  Here we are able to experiment with it in fashion of the classic Bordeaux wines pre-1940s.  St. Macaire was lost to phylloxera and now growths in Howell Mountain and Australia are all that keeps this antiquitus grape alive, again, experimentation allows us a window into the past.  Carménère was also hit hard by phylloxera, long thought lost until it was rediscovered in Chile being sold as Merlot.  With the 3 lost Bordeaux grapes in hand, California Meritage had all the merit and heritage available to make wines that could possibly eclipse even the modern Bordeaux houses.
  2. Creativity, creativity, creativity!  Generally speaking Left Bank Bordeaux is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Merlot, Right Bank Bordeaux is dominated by Merlot, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s the law (with wine though, there are always some exceptions to the rules).  In California, we don’t have an AOC to tell us what we can and can’t do with our Bordeaux grapes (if you want to get super technical, the Meritage Alliance is kinda like that, but waaaaaaay more relaxed – besides the point) and thus all sorts of fun things can occur.  Malbec dominated blend with a little Cab Franc and Merlot?  Sure!  More Sémillon than Sauv Blanc for your blend?  Of course!  How about a Cab Franc and Carménère 50/50?  Totally.  All sorts of options unfold with the Meritage category when playing by the (loose) rules.


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