Another Wine Experience: North American Meritage
The wine-dinner group met recently at a local unpretentious BYOB restaurant. We are surely fortunate to have so many of these restaurants in the vicinity for they curtail greatly our costs for dining out.
The theme for this evening's wine tasting was the blend of Bordeaux grapes known hereabouts as "Meritage." The term Meritage is a registered trademark, and red wines bearing this description must contain at least two of the grapes used in the mix found in the red wines from Bordeaux, i.e., cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec, and no single varietal may comprise more than 90% of the blend. A white Meritage bears the same relationship to white Bordeaux as its red counterpart; it is a blend of at least two of the grapes sauvignon blanc, sémillon, and sauvignon vert. [APB note: Meritage rhymes with heritage.]
We only managed a single white wine, brought in duplicate so there'd be sufficient to go around the table. However, it was not until different tasting descriptions were echoing around the table about the wine did we realize that both a 2001 ($18) and 2002 ($15) Clos du Val Ariadne had been placed before us. The 2002 bottling is composed of 74% sémillon and the remainder sauvignon blanc. I do believe the 2001 is composed of the same two grape varieties, but I don't have a note on the percentages. These two white wines were quite different. The 2001 was very dry, with mineral notes and a citrusy, grapefruit flavor; a typical sauvignon blanc essence. In contrast, the 2002 was a milder mouthful, with fruit more predominant along the lines of peach or apricot, or even figs. Some in attendance mentioned a taste of honey to accompany this low acidity, almost chardonnay-like wine. Same grapes, same winery, but different years did a critical difference make.
Ten red wines followed, and I will say at this point that 9 of the 10 wines were pleasant, even good, and half were extremely good. The initial wine was a Franciscan "Magnificat Red" from 2004 ($35) which arrived alongside the asparagus bundles containing Italian ham and mozzarella baked in a puff pastry. The wine was composed predominantly of cabernet sauvignon (70%) with the remainder merlot except for a pinch of petit verdot. It had a nice perfumey nose of dark fruit (blackberry/cherries) and what others around the table described as chocolate and tobacco. The wine was powerful, full, richly textured but not overdone with respect to tannins. One had the feeling it would improve with age. Others described the tasting experience as "heady," "very rounded," "beautiful nose" and "sumptuous." I believe it's fair to say this wine was well liked. I will also tell you now that it was the top vote-getter based on the end-of-evening poll with 7 of 10 first place finishes and appearing on all 10 "top three" lists. It was truly magnificent.
The second wine was an Estancia 2004 Paso Robles ($23). Composed of 61% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot and 9% petit verdot, I felt it was a light, "drink-now" kind of wine. Soft, with dark fruit (cherries, plums), a touch of spice, and very approachable. Others described it as "yummy, but not as sophisticated as the Franciscan," with a "long, smooth finish." It provided a suitable accompaniment to the lightly battered calamari in a marinara sauce, and marinated large mushrooms caps topped with spinach, gorgonzola and roasted red peppers.
Wines numbered three and four were products of Dry Creek Vineyard, a 2003 ($22) and 2004 ($34), respectively. My notes on the 2003 read almost identically to someone else's I reviewed: very soft, delicious, drinkable. It had 52% merlot to go along with 41% cabernet sauvignon, with 2-3% of each of the remaining permitted varietals. The nose contained the usual dark fruit notes, and perhaps that was coffee I detected. Taste-wise it was plumy and extremely soft. The 2004 was bolder, more tannic and probably needs to age a bit. But it may evolve into something even finer than the 2003. The blend is composed of 45% cabernet sauvignon, 40% merlot and then 3-6% each of malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Tastes of dark fruit predominated. It should be mentioned that several in attendance had this wine on their "top three" wines of the evening list, and two tasters gave it their number one rating!
Wine number five was a 2005 Duckhorn "Decoy" Red from Napa Valley ($32). The blend is composed of 45% cabernet sauvignon, 36% merlot, 11% cabernet franc, and 8% petit verdot. I had written that it was a "good, plumy wine," with tolerable tannins and greater complexity than wines number two and three. Others described it as "rich and smooth," "velvety," and "mellow." It was a bit acidic with the usual dark fruit (cherry, plum) flavors, and mention of toast, coffee and chocolate appeared intermittently on various tasting notes. Although not in my list of "top three" favorites, this wine was runner-up for a second place finish in the overall vote tally made at the end of the evening.
The oldest wine of the evening's tasting, wine number six, was a 1998 Jekel Arroyo Secco Sanctuary ($36). This wine arrived alongside plates of veal oscar (sautéed veal topped with crabmeat, roasted peppers, asparagus and champagne cream sauce), veal saltimbocca (veal saut´ed and topped with prosciutto, mozzarella cheese and sautéed spinach with fresh sage), and osso buco (veal shank braised and slow cooked in a marinara sauce, with Kalamata olives and capers, and infused in a garlic and port wine reduction), to mention just a few. It was described as "very smooth," "pleasant," and "balanced" with fruit and tannins in harmony. It offered a rich mouthful with flavors of dark berries and spice and sweet notes of some kind. My tasting notes say "yummy." Its blend consisted of 59% merlot, 39% cabernet sauvignon, and 2% petit verdot. While I liked this wine, it appeared on no one's "best three" listing, but I daresay it would have made it to many people's best five. The competition was just too strong.
Wine number seven was a 2002 Ferrari-Carano "Tresor" Sonoma County ($35). This was my favorite wine of the evening. I described this blend of 86% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, 3% petit verdot and 1% cabernet franc as sumptuous and wonderful, with terrific fruit to go along with its tannins. The oak and fruit flavors combined were described by others as "yummy," "delicious," "very smooth," and "great." Not a clear winner of the evening, based on overall votes garnered, but it did appear on the "top three" list of three participants.
The only wine of the evening I didn't care for, and one that did not appear on any "top three" list, was wine number eight. It was a 2005 De Santes Calder from Napa ($20). It was composed of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, in percentages I know not, plus, I believe, some syrah, whose presence would, technically, disqualify it from Meritage inclusion. I thought it had a bitter aftertaste, while others described it as smooth and sweet. I suppose that's why its useful to have several tasters present.
Wine number nine, a 2001 Hedges Red Mountain Reserve from Washington State ($39) was a clear winner. It tied with wine number five for a second place overall finish to the wines tasted. Tasting notes around the table described it as "very nice," "deep," "smooth" and "so good." Like many of the wines that evening, I detected dark fruits, a hint of spice, gentle tannins, and possessing a long lasting finish. It was composed of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.
Wine number 10 was the only wine that was covered, for the intent was to guess its origin (which no one did). All of us characterized it as a young wine, not complex, easy to drink, and with a mild fruity nose. One taster mentioned it was "thin." It was from Texas, going by the name of "Hog Wild" and I recall neither its price nor its composition.
All in all, these Meritage wines from North America provided some very pleasant drinking indeed.
Have one you'd like to tell us about?
Erleichda, I've been learning from some local wine merchants that there has been a move away from "Meritage" by many suppliers, in part because the trademark requires a licensing fee that some now find unnecessary.
Moreover, when the term was first developed 20 years ago, California Bordeaux-type blends didn't quite have the stand-alone excellence that they do today. Hence the promotional nature of the term Meritage is far less necessary today. For those reasons and others, many California and other American producers are using the term "Claret," the British name for Bordeaux.
Thanks for that update, Neurospasm. So, when we see California "claret" we'll know what to expect.