Meritage merits quick action to snap up best
Everybody’s making it, although not everybody’s calling it by the popular name. Meritage—rhymes with heritage. People who say merri-tawj (rhymes with Bages, as in Lynch) don’t know from Meritage.
It’s not French, not in the slightest, although it’s based on French grapes and procedures, specifically Bordeaux. A type of blended wine invented in California—meaning the name’s well protected, and if you want to use it for your blend, there’s a little fee to be paid to the inventors.
Which is why there are no true-named Meritages in today’s lineup. (Although there are quite a few produced in British Columbia.) For this outing, we have other made-up names: Nota Bene, Portfolio and Pinnacle, Fifth Element and Six Vines.
So what’s a real Meritage? First created by the Meritage Association in 1988, it’s a blend of two or more Bordeaux grape varieties, red or white (although reds predominate), and a strict formula for putting them into a wine barrel.
If you’re making red, pick a couple of these: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Gros Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, or St. Macaire. Hardly anybody ever uses St. Macaire. If you’re doing white, these are your options: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Hardly anybody ever uses Muscadelle.
No more than 90 percent of any single variety can make up your blend, and your production limit is 25,000 cases per vintage. And then there’s the little matter of the royalty. It isn’t really outrageous: a dollar per case to a maximum of $500 per vintage—in U.S. dollars, of course. B.C.’s Harry McWatters, founder of Sumac Ridge, was the first Canadian to sign on, and to this day produces some of the country’s finest Meritages.
Let’s sample some, starting with the cleverly named and presented Laughing Stock; David Enns calls the winery “our vow of poverty”. He and partner Cynthia Enns have named their winning blend Portfolio, in keeping with the whole stock-market concept, and the 2006 vintage retails at $38.90. In several separate tastings, the wine topped my tasters’ list of favourites, for its magnificent richness: “Soft but not mushy, fruity but not overwhelming, rich and full, merely magnificent!” If you want to make your own, take 61 parts Merlot, 16 parts each Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, five percent Malbec, and two percent Petit Verdot. Stir, and stick into oak barrels for a year and a half. Enjoy, and keep on enjoying for a decade if you have the patience.
What can I say about Black Hills’ Nota Bene that I haven’t already said here, and often, including this predictable fact: it’s all sold out. The 2006 vintage sold for $42.90, literally within hours, and my first taste of the 47 percent Cabernet Sauvignon/37 percent Merlot/16 percent Cabernet Franc blend confirmed what all of the previous vintages had established: this is just one hell of a wine. Full, intense, cherry-ripe, worth the wait and the fuss—and the money. A classic Bordeaux blend I wouldn’t even open till after the 2010 hoopla has abated. The next release is scheduled for April 28; don’t expect to find any at the winery on April 29.
Road 13 is the winery that recently reinvented itself from its origins as Golden Mile Cellars. New packaging, new name, an astonishingly fine first-vintage portfolio, at the pinnacle of which sits Fifth Element 2006 ($34.99), a glorious blend whose makeup I still haven’t pried from winemaker Michael Bartier. But here’s the “formula” off the back label: “a judicious blending”¦the sum far exceeds the individual parts”¦a pinch of x was added to a, b, c and d.” Who knows, it might not be a Meritage at all. But it’s killer red with a hint of sweetness; a voluptuous, pillowy-mellow, long-finishing red that kept watch with grilled boerewors sausage and a little baseball steak, avocado with lime and fleur de sel, arugula and tomato salad and a mess o’ Pensacola, Florida, chef Jim Shirley’s sensational Grits í Ya Ya. (Southern Boy Cooks Good Grits! is the title of his terrific cookbook.)
A relatively new Okanagan winery is Twisted Tree, whose initial outing included some excellent whites and a handful of reds that were allowed to rest in the cellar before opening. Six Vines ($21.90) is their name for a real Meritage-style blend of no fewer than six varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Petit Verdot, and a splash of Malbec. It started with great big plummy aromas and a little spice, including a hint of pepper; had ripe and mellow fruit; and continued to taste fresh and fine, even after being kept open—under cork, of course—in the cold on the deck. Excellent with a platter of cheeses, including goat cheese, or a high-end ploughman’s lunch.
Sumac Ridge Pinnacle 2005 was B.C.’s first $50 wine when it first arrived a few vintages ago, maybe even Canada’s. Nineteen hundred cases of the ’05 were produced, the price jumped five bucks, and the mix is near-Meritage: 56 percent Merlot, 21 percent Cabernet Franc, 18 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and five percent Syrah. But Harry McWatters also created two “regular” Meritages, including one of only two white versions produced in B.C., plus he paved the way, so he’s allowed. Besides, Pinnacle is a pretty good name for a highflying wine. This one’s fabulous after its two years in French oak barrels—all round, bright fruit and a deep and satisfying, elegant finish. Those bottles are heavy, though. Good thing they don’t have to ship a lot of it overseas; B.C. wine lovers seem to grab as much as they can.
Others to keep an eye out for include Osoyoos Larose’s Le Grand Vin, Nk’Mip Cellars’ Qwam Qwmt Meritage, Jackson-Triggs’s Proprietors’ Grand Reserve Meritage, and the two Sumac Ridges. We’ll make room for a tasting of those sometime soon.