Meritage, a term coined to break the varietal jam among California’s Bordeaux-inspired reds and whites, is about to turn 20. Whether there’s reason to celebrate or not is our weekend food for thought.
If you know what Meritage means and stands for and can pronounce it, consider yourself informed. Most wine lovers don’t have a clue what it is, and worse, they typically stumble in their efforts to pronounce it.
Meritage is the word chosen in 1988 to define Bordeaux-style blends of either red or white wines. It combines two words—merit and heritage—and rhymes with heritage.
The name came as a result of a contest to create a term for Bordeaux-style reds and whites that didn’t meet varietal labeling laws (A wine must be 75 percent of the grape used on the label). A wine that’s 75 percent Merlot can be called Merlot. But a wine that’s 73 percent Cabernet, 20 percent Merlot and seven percent Cabernet Franc can’t legally be called Cabernet. A wine that’s a 50-50 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon can’t carry a varietal name either. So Meritage was the name chosen by producers who wanted to create a new category for wines like these. The French, of course, have avoided the varietal approach and typically refer to their best wines by appellation, as in Bordeaux or Burgundy though, the grapes that go into those wines are restricted and, in the case of Bordeaux, they vary from château to château.
Most of the time I hear the name Meritage—whether it’s the name of a restaurant or a reference to a wine—it’s given a French pronounciation. Even people who are extremely knowledgeable about wine, and collect it, or sell it or pour it in restaurants, typically give it that French twist. As such, it is one of the most mispronounced words in the American wine lexicon.
I’ve always had mixed emotions about the term, since it requires an explanation. In spirit I like Meritage, since varietal labeling is too restrictive for many wines. But Meritage has never caught on the way its sponsors had hoped. There are certainly many wineries worldwide that embrace the term and you see wine lists and shelves in wine shops that designate a Meritage section. But wines such as Opus One, or Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, both Napa Valley-based Cabernet blends that could have used the term, didn’t, and that didn’t help the cause.
My guess is that many of you know what Meritage means and how to pronounce it. But I’m also curious if it’s new, and therefore foreign, to you and if you appreciate what it means and how to say it.
Bernard Kruithof — San Antonio, Texas — November 21, 2007 1:18pm ET
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