The biggest red wines are often called Meritage by their producers. Some think that’s a French term, but that would be a few thousand miles from the truth; Meritage is a solidly California creation, dating to 1989.
Meritage came about thanks to a group of California vintners who aimed to create standards to identify a clutch of wines produced with varying amounts of traditional Bordeaux grape varieties. The name itself was chosen from thousands of entries—the winner came from New Jersey!
The name was meant to identify blends that, because of a law concerning high-end wines not made from at least 75 percent of a single grape variety, couldn’t use the name of the principal grape. So producers often went with generic names or proprietary ones—one of the most famous being Joseph Phelps’s Insignia.
The Meritage rules state that in order to use the name, the wine must be a blend of two or more Bordeaux varieties—in the case of red wines, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Gros Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and St. Macaire. No single grape variety may make up more than 90 percent of a Meritage blend. Also, it’s supposed to be the winery’s best grape of its type. Production is limited to 25,000 cases per vintage. Then there’s a per-case royalty payable to the Meritage Alliance for the use of the name. These wines tend to be expensive.
In B.C., Sumac Ridge, under the direction of founder Harry McWatters, was the first to sign on to the Meritage protocol. But not all domestic producers making rich red blends wanted to go that route and some came up with their own proprietary names, not wanting to be limited to the Bordeaux grape varieties listed above.
Here today, a look at a handful of Meritage-style labels, in ascending order of price.
Primal Roots California Red Blend 2010 ($15.99)
Made from Merlot, Syrah, and—this is the odd grape in—Zinfandel into an appealing and impressive wine, especially for the price. The Zin shows up in the nose and carries through to the spicy finish. A great cheese wine, the stronger the better. The panel thought it beat another new Californian, called Apothic.
Fort Berens 23 Camels Red 2011 ($18.99)
Not long ago we tasted the white version here, and
I related the tale behind the name. The Cab Franc/Cab Sauv/Merlot blend here is even better—rich and smooth, quite delicate but carrying a big bite through the finish. Needs solid Italian food—the saged chicken-liver appetizer at Zefferelli’s would be ideal. An aside: this is the only one in this batch finished with a screw cap.
Peter Lehmann Layers 2010 ($18.99)
This Barossa Valley newcomer is built from five grapes:
Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Tempranillo, and Carignan. It was an instant hit with the panel, for its deep, dark colour and notes of forest undergrowth, its lush and full, seamless flavour (all the varieties were tightly knit together),
resulting in a beautifully cohesive dinner wine. Price is right, too.
Glen Carlou Grand Classique 2009 ($21)
A new South African blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc struck a solid chord with the tasters (the bottle was the first to empty) with its smoky, spicy, dusty flavours. It would suit chops and cutlets, particularly. A solid, satisfying finish all the way.
Spierhead Pursuit 2010 ($21.90, 375 cases)
A sumptuous new blend from the still fairly new winery on the Southeast Kelowna bench; since Day 1, the label has distinguished itself with big reds in particular. Here’s one more, with another to follow, below. The mix is dominated by Merlot, then Cab Sauv, then Cab Franc. That 18 months in French oak shows through in the soft and mellow weight and the spicy, tangy finish. A lovely wine, especially in its price range.
Fort Berens Meritage 2010 ($26.99)
Couldn’t resist throwing one Meritage, so-labelled, into the tasting. Spicy blackberries galore, morphing into a smooth and quite subtle finish, with deep, ripe fruit throughout. Classic components: 65 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cab Sauv, five percent Cab Franc. A superb achievement, especially for a first outing.
Spierhead Vanguard 2010 ($29.90, 265 cases)
The other one from Spierhead, its premium Bordeaux blend of Merlot and Cab Sauv in equal proportions (48 percent each), topped with a four-percent fillip of Cab Franc. This has seen several vintages. It’s round and mellow, with some heady tannins; a rich, dessertlike finish like German prune-and-custard cake.
Laughing Stock Portfolio 2010 ($42; also available in collector’s magnums and double magnums)
The blend is Cab Sauv 42 percent, Merlot 32 percent, Malbec 18 percent, Cab Franc six percent, Petit Verdot two percent. This has been very successful for the winery for several vintages. Mellow and gently sweet at first sip, then deep and full of fruit throughout. Very impressive and, more important, very appealing. A classic taste with turkey and suchwhat.
Mission Hill Quatrain 2009 ($50)
One of two similar blends produced by the winery (the other follows), made from 35 percent Merlot, 30 percent Syrah, 20 percent Cab Sauv, and 15 percent Cab Franc, a pretty classic Meritage makeup. Lovely deep-purple colour, with a huge blackberry aroma burst for the front palate. What tannins show up are restrained and soft. Surely a meat or big-old-Cheddar wine.
Mission Hill Compendium 2009 ($50)
Another of the three Mission Hill blockbusters, with Oculus at the top of the pyramid. Here’s 40 percent Cab Sauv, 35 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cab Franc, and five percent Petit Verdot. Very mellow and soft, great spice, rich and right. Lovely too, so take your pick. Or better yet, get both and have your dinner guests do their own comparing.
Black Hills Nota Bene 2010 ($53)
The one that started it all. And weren’t we shocked when we saw the price? Even more shocked—and better!—when we tasted the wine. Still great after all these years, still handsome and regal—57 percent Cab Sauv, 32 percent Merlot, 11 percent Cab Franc is right on the money. Lean and linear, super clean, and rich, with a textbook Bordeaux finish. Check the winery or a favourite private store for availability.
Clos du Soleil Winemaker’s Reserve 2009 ($58)
Superwhiz winemaker Ann Sperling made this one for the Similkameen winery, from 50 percent Merlot and 25 percent each of Cab Sauv and Cab Franc. Stunning fruit and a brilliant, miles-long finish, restrained tannins, and beautiful balance. If this isn’t the best of this lineup, it’s certainly in the top three. Major meat is called for. Will keep for a long time—if you want it to; me, I’m drinking mine before the year’s end. Fifty cases were made, so good luck with that!