Meritage Wines

You can argue that winemakers were wagging the dog when they came up with a catchy name for California wines made with traditional Bordeaux grapes.

They even hosted a competition in 1988, looking for a name that would brand their high-quality blends. More than 6,000 names were submitted. The winner: Meritage, a compound of the words “merit” and “heritage” and pronounced like heritage.

The Meritage Association, which protected the name with the U.S. Department of Trademarks and Patents, established the criteria: To be a Meritage, the wine must be made from two or more Bordeaux grapes. The red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere, Gros Verdot and St. Macaire. White Meritage can be made from Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Vert and Semillon. No more than 90 percent of one varietal may be in the blend.

The wine also must be made from the best of each winery’s varietals and be produced and bottled by an American winery from grapes grown in a designated appellation. And production must be no more than 25,000 cases.

A marketing ploy? Maybe, but one with a purpose. As Internet wine writer Natalie MacLean (natdecants.com) explains: “The intention of the Meritage Association was to simplify wine so that consumers would not have to memorize all grapes and blends. It is making its mark and was worth doing.”

Meritage wines, most made primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon, tend to be generous and elegant and benefit from breathing. And they pair particularly well with hearty winter dishes or hearthside sipping.

“A blend may not make a better wine, but it makes a different wine with different nuances,” MacLean says. “And a Meritage can be more consistent from year to year.”

Some to consider for the holiday, beyond Napa Valley giants that dominate many restaurant wine lists, include Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Opus One, Valeria and Agustin Huneeus’ Quintessa, Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and Christian Moueix’ Dominus. Vintages may vary.

•Chateau Ste. Michelle 2004 Artist Series Meritage: 51 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 34 percent Merlot, 11 percent Malbec, 4 percent Petit Verdot. More feminine than others but with muscle and structure. Blackberry and blueberry nose; velvety, long finish. Mellow tannins make it particularly food-friendly. Groovy label by artist Alden Mason. Gomer’s South. Around $50.

•Clois du Bois Marlstone 2003: 69 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 percent Merlot, 2 percent Cabernet Franc, 4 percent Malbec, 3 percent Petit Verdot. Gomer’s, Royal Liquors and JJ’s. Closdubois.com; $50 to $74.

•Dry Creek the Mariner Dry Creek Valley 2004: 46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 percent Merlot, 6 percent Malbec, 5 percent Cabernet Franc, 3 percent Petit Verdot. Wrap this one around you like a velour bathrobe. Mouthfuls of dusky dark cherry. Red X, Gomer’s South, Lukas Liquor, JJ’s. Drycreek vineyards.com; $40 to $58.

•Estancia 2004: 61 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot, 9 percent Petit Verdot. Think intense chocolate, softened with a little residual sugar and toasty oak. Gomer’s North, Gomer’s South, Red X, Classic Cup. Estanciaestates.com; $31.

•Franciscan Magnificat Red Wine 2004: 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 29 percent Merlot, 1 percent Petit Verdot. Supremely elegant with plums and cassis. Pierpont’s, Lukas Liquor, Royal Liquor. Franciscan.com; $54 to $70.

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