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Proprietary Red Blends & Meritage: Bordeaux-Style Winemaking in California
Bordeaux winemakers have long known that cabernet sauvignon makes a better wine when it is the main component in a blending formula that incorporates other grape varieties to round out and refine the varietal's naturally forceful tannins and flavors.
The other Bordeaux varieties -- merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec -- also provide extra layers of flavor and complexity in the finished wine, which eventually becomes a product that is greater than the mere sum of its parts.
Brute Strength Yields to Finesse
The Bordeaux approach didn't really catch on in California until the 1980s, after a decade of huge, rich, tannic, 100 percent varietal Cabs that often exhibited more oak than fruit. Eventually, consumers and winemakers agreed that finesse, depth, complexity and balance were more desirable than brute strength.
Today, it's a common practice for winemakers to add some merlot or cabernet franc, or both, to cabernet sauvignon. And when the winery wants to make a first-class merlot, cabernet sauvignon and/or cabernet franc will be blended in. So long as the other varieties constitute no more than 25 percent of the resulting wine, it can be labeled varietally as cabernet sauvignon or merlot, as the case may be.
But what happens when the winemaker determines that cabernet sauvignon shouldn't constitute at least 75 percent of the blend -- that a better wine can be made with, say, just 45 percent cabernet sauvignon blended with 35 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc and eight percent petit verdot?
The answer is that the winemaker adjusts the blending formula to achieve the desired result, and then sits down with the marketing people to figure out what to call the wine. This wouldn't be a problem in Bordeaux, where the wine is given the name of the estate (or chateau, in French) that produced it. For example, the blending formula set forth above is that of Chateau Pichon Lalande, and that's all the label says.
The Meritage Concept
The California winery has several alternatives for naming its blend. If the wine is made only from traditional Bordeaux grape varieties, is the winery's best red wine and is limited in production to no more than 25,000 cases, it can be called "Meritage," a coined word that is pronounced like heritage. Meritage wines are the equivalent of Bordeaux-style red and white wines, both in terms of grape varieties and quality. The topic of white proprietary meritage blends was discussed in an earlier "Vintner's Choice" column.
On the other hand, even if the wine could be called Meritage, the winery is free to label it under a proprietary name that legally may be used only by the particular winery, such as "Hommage" from Clos Pegase or Joseph Phelps' "Insignia." Similarly, the proprietary term may be the name of the estate as is done in Bordeaux, such as "Opus One," "Dominus," "Royale" (a new Kendall-Jackson property which uses both "Royale" and "Meritage" on the label) or "Pahlmeyer." This marketing device is the most popular choice among wineries, and there are dozens of these exotically named wines on the market.
Another alternative is to call the wine "Claret," which is an old British term that means the same thing as red Bordeaux blend. This is what White Rock Vineyards in the Napa Valley calls its Meritage red, which sells for about $25. On a less inventive level, there's always "Red Table Wine."
The winery can also employ a non-proprietary term in common use that implies high-quality winemaking. For example, Sterling, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Mount Veeder Winery and Clos Du Val label their Bordeaux blends as "Reserve," and make them only in years that fully justify use of the term.
A variation on the use of the name of the producing estate is the use of the name of the vineyard that supplies the different varietals. This device is used by Ridge ("Monte Bello"), Clos du Bois ("Marlstone") and Ravenswood ("Pickbury"), among others.
Duckhorn's New Twist
Perhaps the newest twist is that employed by Duckhorn Vineyards, which uses the term "Howell Mountain" for its Bordeaux-style blend. The grapes for the wine come from several vineyards in this BATF-approved viticultural appellation, and each year the ideal blend is determined based on the characteristics of the vintage. For example, in 1989 the blend was 41 percent cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot and 25 percent cabernet franc, but in 1990, merlot dominated with 57 percent of the blend, along with 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 13 percent cabernet franc. The percentages are always clearly stated on the label.
Recently, the Vintners Club brought together 12 of these wines for a blind comparative tasting conducted by a panel of 21 tasters. Because many of these wines are "flagship wines," they may be held longer at the winery to benefit from extended bottle age prior to release. Thus, although many 1993 Cabernet Sauvignons are already in the shops, the current releases of these special wines span the 1991 and 1992 vintages. Prices ranged from $19 to $75, indicating that California producers are emulating their Bordeaux counterparts in pricing, as well as production, practices.
1992 J. Stonestreet Legacy, Alexander Valley ($35)
Forward, appealing aromas of mint, cherry-cassis fruit, cedar, leather, cocoa and toasty, smoky French oak, accented by a certain warm earthiness. The blend -- 54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 43 percent merlot, 3 percent petit verdot -- yields rich, ripe raspberry-cassis flavors mingled with clove spice and smoky oak; deep, layered and delicious. Excellent balance and structure, showing medium tannins. Long, lingering finish. Superior quality.
1991 Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains ($75)
This is one of California's greatest vineyards, located at an elevation of 2,600 feet in the Santa Cruz Mountains about 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Its wines are long lived, complex and worth the high price. The 1991 Monte Bello is mostly cabernet sauvignon (85 percent) blended with 15 percent merlot. Fragrant, inviting scents of black cherry-cassis fruit, vanilla and green olive lead to a smooth, lush wine of enormous complexity. The palate offers deep, plumy cassis-black cherry fruit, roasted coffee, licorice and clove spice, along with a wild mushroom-like note. A thoroughly enjoyable wine that is both powerful and elegant. Superior quality.
1991 Dalle Valle Vineyards Maya, Napa Valley ($75)
This mountain-grown red is every bit as impressive as the first- and second-place wines, offering deep, fragrant scents of plumy cassis and wild berry fruit, plus toasty oak, vanilla and cedar. Exceptionally generous in the mouth, exhibiting lots of ripe cassis-raspberry-black cherry fruit, roasted coffee, mint and new oak. Thoroughly delicious and impressive. The blend is 55 percent cabernet sauvignon, 45 percent cabernet franc and one percent merlot from estate vineyards above the Silverado Trail. Superior quality.
1991 Mount Veeder Winery Reserve, Napa Valley ($25)
Restrained, though complex, nose of red cherries, violets and rose petals, cedar, mint and a hint of black pepper. Medium-full tannins. Pleasant, sweet cherry-berry fruit with a spicy note. This blend of mountain-grown cabernet sauvignon (52 percent), merlot (33 percent), cabernet franc (12 percent), petit verdot (2 percent) and malbec (one percent) drinks well now. Above-average quality.
1992 Opus One, Napa Valley ($60)
Complex, Medoc-like nose of cedar, spice, cassis and cigar box, along with lots of earthy, mushroomy notes that suggest some brettanomyces ("brett") which, if viewed positively, is known as "good barnyard" and, if off-putting, is called dirty. Full tannins and puckery with just enough black currant fruit to balance out in cellaring. This mostly-cabernet-sauvignon blend (8 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent merlot) was very controversial with the panel, with many finding its quirky elements too extreme to justify the price, while others found its resemblance to a stylish French first growth appealing.
1992 Geyser Peak Reserve Alexandre Meritage, Trione Vineyards, Alexander Valley ($25)
Intense, appealing scents of cherries, raspberries and vanilla accompanied by vanillan oak and an intriguing note of violets. Medium tannins. Deep, ripe, vibrant black cherry-cassis fruit on the palate, along with cedar and tobacco-leaf herbaceousness. Silky and elegant. A delicious blend of merlot (40 percent), cabernet sauvignon (28 percent), petit verdot (22 percent) and five percent each cabernet franc and malbec. Above-average quality.
1992 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia, Napa Valley ($55)
The nose opens with airing to reveal attractive, slightly dusty, aromas of sweet oak, cedar, cassis and light spice. Medium-full tannins that will require a few more years to resolve. Extractive berry-cassis fruit sufficient to match the tannins, plus cedar and evident oak. Massively structured and built to age. A very impressive blend of 67 percent cabernet sauvignon and 33 percent merlot. Above-average quality.
1991 Langtry Meritage Red, California (produced by Guenoc Winery) ($35)
Winegrower and Guenoc Winery owner Orville Magoon was one of the first vintners in California to recognize the importance of planting Bordeaux grape varietals for blending. The five traditional Bordeaux varietals were planted at the Guenoc estate two decades ago. This blend of 58 percent cabernet sauvignon, 32 percent cabernet franc, 9 percent petit verdot and one percent malbec offers attractive, slightly smoky aromas of ripe black cherries and cassis, plus toasty French oak. Pleasant bell pepper herbaceousness frames the flavors, which also offer ripe cherry-cassis fruit and a lingering aftertaste. Above average quality.
1991 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Carneros Claret Reserve ($28)
The winery produces two clarets, one a cabernet-sauvignon-dominated blend with a Stags Leap District appellation, and the other this Carneros Claret Reserve, which is 59 percent merlot, 22 percent cabernet sauvignon and 19 percent cabernet franc. Shy red fruits (strawberry-cherry) and mild herbs in the nose. Soft, medium tannins. Straightforward bing cherry-raspberry flavors with moderate depth; smooth. Average quality.
1991 Sterling Reserve, Napa Valley ($30)
A blend of 64 percent cabernet sauvignon, 18 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet franc and 8 percent petit verdot very much in the French style, but not as controversial as the Opus One. Lots of chocolate-like notes in the nose, plus cedar and red berries. Medium-full tannins will require a few years of aging to resolve. Slightly tart with extractive black cherry-cassis fruit and a touch of green herbs. Average to above-average quality.
1992 Ravenswood Pickbury Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain ($30)
Unusual scents of leather, green bell pepper and black cherry-cassis fruit that are somewhat musty. Very tannic, with leather and tobacco leaf dominating the palate, suggesting brettanomyces. A blend of 65 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent cabernet franc. Below-average quality.
1991 Clos du Bois Marlstone Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($19)
Slightly weedy nose focuses on chocolate or cocoa, toffee, smoky oak, herbs and shy fruit; some tasters detected an off smell resembling burnt rubber. Soft and supple in the mouth with medium tannins, offering cherry-berry fruit, cedar and shy spice. Lingering aftertaste. A blend of 54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot, 6 percent malbec and 5 percent cabernet franc. Average quality.
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.