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Proprietary Meritage Blends: California's Best White Wines
The practice of blending different varietals together to create a particular style of wine is hardly new. Winemakers have known for centuries that finely honed varietal blending techniques can result in a wine in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In the case of white wine, the most obvious example of blending is the combination of sauvignon blanc and semillon, which is usually labeled as "Sauvignon (or Fume) Blanc" if semillon constitutes less than 75 percent of the blend. It can also be called "White Meritage" or "Meritage White Wine" if this classic Bordeaux blend meets the requirements of the Meritage Association, which licenses the term.
The word "Meritage" (pronounced without a French accent so that it rhymes with "heritage") is a coined term. It evolved from a contest held in 1989 by the then new Meritage Association, a group of more than 30 vintners involved in producing these wines, who felt the need to define what they were doing with a better term than "proprietary blends" (which, after all, can encompass everything from Opus One to Thunderbird.) More than 6,000 consumers submitted entries in the Invent a Name Contest, and the Association settled on "Meritage."
At that time, according to Agustin Huneeus, president of Franciscan Vineyards and an early supporter of the Meritage concept, "We needed something new to define this emerging style of American winemaking. We were well entrenched in varietally designated wines by the mid 1980s. But California vintners were finding wines made from the Bordeaux varieties to be more interesting when blended."
The problem was what to call these blended wines when they did not contain enough of any one varietal to meet governmental (BATF) regulations requiring that a wine consist of at least 75 percent of a particular grape in order to be designated as that varietal on the label.
"We needed a name we could register and protect," Huneeus continues, "so we selected a coined term that had no previous meaning. By doing that, Meritage means exactly what The Meritage Association defines it to mean."
Under Association licensing rules, a white wine may be designated as Meritage or Meritage White Wine if it is limited in production (not more than 25,000 cases), is the winery's best wine of its type, and is a blend of two or more grape varieties traditionally used in Bordeaux white blends, namely, sauvignon blanc, semillon, savagnin musque (a synonym for sauvignon blanc) and sauvignon vert (also known as muscadelle), with no one varietal making up more than 90 percent of the blend.
You'll note that chardonnay is not included in the Meritage list of approved ingredients. This is because chardonnay is not a Bordeaux varietal. Its absence allows the winemaker to depart at will from all the tinkering that one normally associates with fleshy, opulent Burgundy, such as lots and lots of new oak for fermentation and barrel aging, and complete malolactic fermentation, in order to concentrate instead on fruit, balance, complexity and elegance.
"In the absence of the term Meritage," Huneeus said back in 1990, "each one of the vintner members of the Association would have to invent a proprietary name to distinguish each wine, which would lead to enormous confusion."
For the first few years after the Meritage concept was launched in 1988, many wineries that produced a classic white Bordeaux blend labeled it "White Meritage," although some preferred to use a proprietary name instead. Today, in spite of Huneeus' warning of confusion caused by proprietary proliferation, it's just the other way around, with the field dominated by proprietary names, and Meritage in smaller type on the label to designate the quality level of the wine.
An excellent (and delicious) example of this current state of affairs is a recently released wine called "Royale," which is designated as "a proprietary California Meritage white wine" by Napa-based Cardinale, a new winery division of the Kendall-Jackson empire which is devoted exclusively to Meritage red and white wines. The 1994 Royale ($15), comprised of 86% sauvignon blanc and 14% semillon harvested from vineyards in both Lake County and Napa Valley, is the companion white wine to the Cardinale red Bordeaux blend. Royale is vinified with the same care as the best white Meritage wines -- barrel fermentation and sur lie aging for five months in mostly new French and American oak barrels -- but stands out because malolactic fermentation was intentionally avoided to preserve the wine's natural acidity in harmony with its concentrated character. The package itself is the epitome of the Meritage concept of superior quality: a tall, clear, slender bottle perfectly complementing the elegant, yet uncluttered, front label; an informative back label bears the signature of proprietor Jess Jackson and an individual bottle number, along with the total number of bottles produced. A class act, indeed.
Back in 1990, Huneeus predicted that "the best wines that will be developed in the future in California will be the Meritage blends." Wines like Royale and other superior proprietary Meritage white wines tend to bear out his prediction, since they certainly show off California white wine production to its best advantage if one considers that the highest and best use of wine is to accompany food, and not to analyzed in and of itself or in comparison to other like wines. Arguably, proprietary white Meritage, along with finely crafted, reserve quality, varietally labeled Sauvignon (or Fume) Blanc, is California's best white wine match for cuisine. Showy Chardonnay is often best utilized as an aperitif to enjoy for its power, oak and opulence before consuming the serious wine with food.
Recently, one of the Vintners Club's weekly tastings brought together twelve Bordeaux-style white blends, consisting of white Meritage, proprietary white Meritage, proprietary wines without the Meritage designation, and high-end Sauvignon Blancs for a blind comparison analysis. A current-release white Bordeaux bottling from Chateau Carbonnieux was also included for perspective.
The resulting tasting notes indicated that most of the wines in this category are excellent values for the money, offering delicious fruit, mouthwatering acidity and, usually, well-integrated oak. The comparatively expensive ($19) French white blend was ranked last, suffering from too much sulfur. At one dollar less, Simi Winery's 1992 Sendal was far and away a better wine than the French representative.
1993 Lakewood Chevriot, Clear Lake ($12)
Produced by one of the smallest (3,000 cases) wineries in the Kendall-Jackson family of wineries called "Artisans and Estates," the '93 Lakewood Chevriot is a tasty, complex marriage of 70% sauvignon blanc and 30% semillon from estate vineyards in the remote Clear Lake appellation, which is an ideal growing area for these varietals. Fresh, appealing aromas of spicy, apple-pear fruit, mild fig, honeysuckle and a hint of garden herbs are replicated on the palate and enhanced by excellent acidity and a pleasant tartness. Moderately rich with just a touch of oak; smooth finish tinged with citrus.
1992 Simi Sendal, Sonoma County, ($18)
Forward, fragrant, deep, inviting scents of spice, melon, citrus and fig, plus well-integrated vanillan oak. Crisp and fresh, smooth and clean in the mouth, with ripe fruit and a lightly grassy edge. A blend of 75% sauvignon blanc and 25% semillon, this is a delicious, elegant, generous wine with excellent acidity. Simi chose the word "Sendal" (pronounced sen-dahl) because sendal describes a sheer silk fabric used for fine clothing. The word accurately echoes the rich, silky texture of this special wine.
1993 Carmenet White Meritage, Paragon Vineyard, Edna Valley ($12)
Restrained, yet elegant, aromas of creamy citrus, peach and pear mingled with mild grassiness and light oak. Creamy and rich on the palate, offering mildly tropical and citrus fruit (70% sauvignon blanc and 30% semillon). Good acidity provides the wine's admirable structure.
1992 Benziger Family Winery "A Tribute," Sonoma Mountain ($16)
Floral nose suggesting peaches and orange blossoms, with a butterscotch note. The flavorrs focus on apples, pears, lemon grass, figs and coconut. The "Tribute" Meritage wines -- both red and white -- are produced in honor of winery patriarch Puno Benziger, who passed away in 1989. According to winery co-founder Mike Benziger, "In many ways, these wines are the culmination of all the blood, sweat and tears [my father] put into this land"
1993 Estancia White Meritage, Monterey County ($12)
Smoky, toasty oak dominates the nose of this blend of 71% sauvignon blanc and 29% semillon, with spicy apple fruit just showing through. The oak dominates the flavors, although there is noticeable fruit suggesting melons and pears, accented by a touch of honey.
1992 Hidden Cellars Alchemy, Mendocino County ($15.90)
There's plenty of toasty oak in the aromas from 100% barrel fermentation and 10 months aging on the lees in French barrels, 25% of which were new. The blend is 81% semillon and 19% sauvignon blanc, imparting a particular honied richness to the wine, which offers ripe apple-pear and citrus fruit and good acidity, along with toasty oak in the flavors.
1993 De Loach Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($10)
Fragrant and stylish scents of grapefruit and herbaceousness indicate a dominance of sauvignon blanc. Moderately rich, with good acidity, the generous flavors replicate the nose and are delicious. A perfect wine for grilled fish.
1993 Quivira Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley ($14)
An estate-grown blend of sauvignon blanc (90%) and semillon (10%), the reserve was vinified in a different style from the winery's regular sauvignon blanc, having been completely barrel fermented in two-thirds new French oak barrels. It underwent malolactic fermentation and was aged on its lees for five months. The resulting wine offers forward, fragrant scents of orange zest and tangerine, along with medium-char oak. Soft and luscious in the mouth, the flavors replicate the nose. Slightly hot in the finish.
1992 de Lorimier Spectrum (Meritage), Alexander Valley ($10)
An appealing blend of 78% sauvignon blanc and 22% semillon, the aromas focus on creamy lemon citrus and pleasant grassiness. On the palate, the citrus comes through, accented by ripe pear and mild spice. A clean, well-made wine with good acidity.
1993 Husch Sauvignon Blanc, La Ribera Vineyards, Mendocino County ($11)
This wine is 100% sauvignon blanc, and was included in the tasting to see whether a nonblended wine that was nevertheless completely barrel fermented would show well against the wines blended in the Bordeaux tradition. While the foregoing wines showed more complexity, the Husch Sauvignon Blanc was notable for its subtle aromas of banana, pineapple, honeysuckle and jasmine, enhanced by roasted almond scents from the oak. More fruity than herbaceous, the lively flavors suggest lemon grass and light almond toast, with honey and vanilla nuances.
1993 Vichon Chevrignon, Napa Valley ($7.50)
Some tasters really appreciated the exuberant grassiness of this 50-50 blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, but the majority considered the wine too stylish and herbal. The minority found the Chevrignon extremely appealing, with all that herbaceousness matched by delicious lemon citrus. This is a generous wine with a rich, silky texture and a long finish that reminds one of freshly chopped Anaheim chiles.
1990 Chateau Carbonnieux, Pessac-Leognan ($19)
Not much to like here: too much sulfur in the nose and on the palate. Even after airing for more than an hour, the stinkiness wouldn't dissipate. And it was rough in the balance. Not recommended.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.