- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
New World wines are mostly named for their grape type: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc., while many Old World wines are named for their place: Bordeaux, Champagne, Barolo, Rioja, etc. Today’s wine market is heavily tilted towards grape names. Varietal labels adorn bottles of wine produced in the United States, Australia, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand, among many other wine-producing nations. Wine consumers around the world are hooked on varietal labels, and the reason for our addiction is easy to understand. Purchasing and enjoying a 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is for most of us a much simpler exercise than buying a 2003 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte from the Pessac-Leognan subregion of Bordeaux.
The irony in the above example is that the Napa Valley Cab must – by law – contain a minimum of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and 85% of those grapes had to be harvested from vineyards in the Napa Valley, while the Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte is – by tradition - mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (anywhere from 50% to 85% depending on vintage year conditions in the vineyard), but 100% of the grapes must have been harvested in Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte’s own vineyards, all of which must be located in the Pessac-Leognan subregion of Bordeaux. In both wines the Cabernet Sauvignon is balanced with judicious percentages of wines made from Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and sometimes Malbec and a few other minor red varietals.
The interesting thing about the Smith-Haut-Lafitte red wine is that it is one of about 1,200 wine estates in Bordeaux, and all of these châteaux will come up with different blends of grapes in their wines. More Cabernet in some, much more Merlot in others, depending on the customs and vintage conditions in their subregions. Percentage of grape types will change from year to year, as the winemakers try to coax the best possible wines from their vines.
Let’s return to the USA. If a winemaker wants to produce a wine that emulates a “Bordeaux Blend” - let’s say 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc – what is he or she going to call it? Since it’s not 75% of any particular grape varietal, the wine can’t be called by the name of a grape, and in fact US wine laws dictate that it be called simply “Red Wine” or “Red Table Wine.” Not too sexy.
20 years ago, some frustrated Napa Valley winemakers who wanted to produce Bordeaux-style blended wines got together to address this issue. Agustin Huneeus of Franciscan Winery, Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino Winery and Julie Garvey of Flora Springs Winery knew that they couldn’t call the wines “Bordeaux Blend,” as the French would go crazy and the US government agency that approves labels (at the time, the BATF), wouldn’t go for it. Besides, these winemakers and others that they attracted wanted to create a uniquely American name for their Old World/New World winemaking concept. They formed a loosely-knit association of about 20 members and in 1988 announced a contest to give their “concept” wines a name. The group received more than 6,000 entries, but chose one submitted by a young Californian, Neil Edgar, who came up with the name, “Meritage.” Neil’s prize would be two bottles of the first ten vintages of each Meritage Association member’s wine.
The first Meritage™ wine was produced by Mitch Cosentino: the 1986 vintage of “The Poet.” Today, under the leadership of Michaela Rodino of St. Supery Winery in Napa Valley and Julie Weinstock of Adobe Road Winery in Sonoma, there are 200 Meritage™ (rhymes with “heritage”) members, most of them in California, but with member wineries in 20 states, including New York State, New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, and Virginia, and even members from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Israel (for a full list of Meritage Association members go to www.meritagewine.org). This year, the Meritage Association celebrates its 20th anniversary.
So, what constitutes a Meritage™ wine? First of all, the wine must be made from a blend of at least two traditional Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot for reds, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for whites (more than 80% of Meritage™ wines are red). Second, no varietal can exceed 90% of the blend. This is probably why some of the most famous “Bordeaux blend” wines – Opus One, Rubicon, Insignia, etc. are not members of the Meritage™ group, as these wines often exceed 90% Cabernet Sauvignon.
I can’t make a blanket statement about what a “typical” Meritage™ wine tastes like, because there is no typical Meritage™ wine. First of all, a wine made from grapes grown in Colorado or Virginia or Michigan is sure to taste different from a wine made from grapes grown in the Napa Valley. Also, some of the wines are more Merlot that Cabernet, some are more Cab than Merlot. Some wines are released in their youth, some are aged for years in barrel and bottle before release. What I can say about the red wines is that they are uniformly full-bodied wines, best served with hearty foods, and that all of the wines I tasted are capable of aging, some of them for a very long time. The whites – white Meritage™ wines never really caught on probably due to the lack of Chardonnay in the blend – are very attractive: medium-bodied, juicy but dry.
Red Meritage™ wines produced in states other than California tend to be a bit lighter than their Golden State counterparts, often lower in alcohol, and less oak-driven. Although their lack of drama might not blow away wine writers and critics who are tasting the wines on their own, these are attractive wines when paired with food.
Below are some fine Meritage™ wines to consider. Several of these will be easy to find in local wineshops – don’t hesitate to ask your wine merchant to order these wines if you don’t see them on store shelves - but for others, especially those made in states other than California and New York State, you’ll probably have to order directly from the winery via the internet. Note that many of these wines are quite expensive, but there are some good values in this category, too.
From New York State / Finger Lakes Region:
2005 Atwater Estate Vineyards Meritage Red (44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot): $19 www.atwatervineyards.com
Non-Vintage Casa Larga Vineyards Meritage Red (40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc): $20. www.casalarga.com
2005 Fox Run Meritage Red (57% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc): $45. www.foxrunvineyards.com
From Colorado: 2004 Grande Vineyards Meritage Red (42% Cabernet Franc, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot): $19. and 2004 Meritage White (67% Sauvignon Blanc, 33% Semillon): $12. - GOOD VALUE. www.granderiverwines.com
From Virginia: 2005 Rappahannock Cellars Meritage Red (32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 10% Malbec and 8% Petit Verdot): $28. www.rappahannockcellars.com
From Michigan: 2005 St. Julian Bragannini Michigan Reserve Meritage Red (42% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc):$30. www.stjulian.com
2005 Casa Nuestra Estate Bottled Meritage Red, Napa Valley (55% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc): $45. www.casanuestra.com
2004 Dry Creek Vineyards “The Mariner” Meritage Red, Dry Creek Valley (46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot): $100. www.drycreekvineyards.com
2004 Franciscan “Magnificat” Meritage Red, Napa Valley (70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot): $45. www.franciscan.com
2005 Frog’s Tooth Meritage Red, Calaveras County (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot): $30. www.frogstooth.com
2003 Heller Estate “Celebration” Meritage Red, Carmel Valley (62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec): $100. and 2003 “Dancers” Meritage Red, Carmel Valley (76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot): $18 - *GOOD VALUE www.hellerestate.com
2004 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Meritage Red, California (65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc) : $15 - *BEST VALUE. www.kj.com
2004 Murrieta’s Well Meritage Red, Livermore Valley (51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot, 18% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Franc): $23. – *GOOD VALUE, and 2005 Meritage White, Livermore Valley (60% Semillon, 40% Sauvignon Blanc): $36. www.murrietaswell.com
2004 South Coast Winery Meritage Red, Wild Horse Peak Mountain Vineyards (50% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot): $35. www.southcoastwinery.com
2003 St. Supéry “Élu” Meritage Red, Napa Valley (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec): $65. and 2006 “Virtú” Meritage White (52% Sauvignon Blanc, 48% Semillon): $25. www.stsupery.com
2003 Topel “Le Mariage” Meritage Red, Mendocino (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, 12% Petit Verdot, 12% Merlot): $29. www.topelwines.com
2005 Trinchero ”Mario’s Reserve” Meritage Red, Napa Valley (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot): $45. www.trincherowinery.com