Wine terminology can sometimes seem like a perplexing, esoteric language created solely to intimidate potential wine enthusiasts. Terms like: vin doux naturel, méthode champenoise and appellation d’origine contrôlée can definitely leave one feeling a bit tongue-tied. Ironically, there is one wine term of U.S. origin that frequently receives an unnecessary “Frenchification” by unwitting wine drinkers. That term, my fellow wine lovers, is “Meritage.”
The word “Meritage” actually rhymes with “heritage” and first appeared in the late 1980′s after a group of American vintners joined forces to create a name for New World wines blended in the tradition of Bordeaux. It was selected from more than 6,000 entries in an international contest to name this new wine classification. You see, most New World wines are labeled after the grape variety that comprises at least 75% of the blend (i.e. wines made from 75% Cabernet Sauvignon or more are labeled as such). Wines that did not meet this requirement were given the generic label of “table wine,” which did not always reflect the level of quality that was in the bottle. The term Meritage combines “merit,” representing the high quality of the grapes, with “heritage,” which recognizes the centuries-old tradition of blending, long considered the highest form of the winemaker’s art. While this may have started out as a case of “sour grapes” regarding winemaking restrictions, in 1988 The Meritage Association was officially formed to distinguish these high-quality, hand-crafted blended wines from ordinary, generic “table wines.”
Many Meritage wines have proprietary names in addition to, or rather than, Meritage. In
order to obtain a license and use the term Meritage on a label, a wine must meet certain criteria. The blending of Meritage wines is limited to the traditional “noble” Bordeaux varietals. A red meritage may be a blend of two or more of the varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and the rarer St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenère. A white meritage may be a blend of two or more of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle du Bordelais. For both red and white wines, no single variety can make up more than 90% of the blend and if any other wine is included in the blend, the wine is simply not a Meritage.
In May of 2009, The Meritage Association officially changed its name to The Meritage Alliance and 2013 marks the organization’s 25th anniversary. The Alliance has over 250 members and includes such recognizable names as Robert Mondavi Wines, B.R. Cohn Winery, Charles Krug Winery, and St. Supery Winery. So while the word “Meritage” may appear to have French roots and it may even be more fun saying it that way (I’ll give you that) – do not be seduced into “Frenchifying” it!