Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Weighing the merit of Meritage

An article that first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Among the anniversaries most members of the international wine industry failed to mark last year was the 20th birthday of Meritage. Back in 1988, a group of California wineries, including such high profile names as Agustin Huneeus of Franciscan, Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino, Julie Garvey of Flora Springs, David Stare of Dry Creek, Chip Lyeth of Lyeth, Richard Graf of Chalone and Jason Pahlmeyer of Pahlmeyer decided that a solution had to be found to a winemaking and marketing problem. The then-young industry was rapidly evolving from producing the single varietals with which it had hit the headlines at the Judgement of Paris tasting a decade or so earlier. Now it wanted to move into more complex blends of the kind that were traditional in Bordeaux. Wine labelled as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot could legally contain up to 25% of other varietals, but how were winemakers to market a blend, for example of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc? And what if, like the maitres de chais of Bordeaux, after sampling the contents of their vats and barrels, these new wave Californians decided to vary the blend from one vintage to the next? Under US law, wines like these could only be sold as Red or White Table Wine. What was needed, the producers decided, was a branded designation that would define Bordeaux-style Californian reds and whites in the way that France’s appellations have done since the 1930s. A competition was launched that attracted some 6,000 entries and Meritage was named the winner. No quality criteria were set for wines sold under this designation though it was hoped that it would be used for premium examples, but they had to be made in California from the varieties that were legally permitted for Bordeaux, with a limit of 90% being set for any grape.

Since those heady days, the world has become replete with Cabernet-Merlot blends (and increasing numbers of vinous cocktails including once esoteric varieties such as Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere), but the Meritage brand has failed to catch the imagination of either producers or, more crucially, retailers and consumers. At the end of its first decade, the Meritage Association had still only signed up 22 members. A change of gear - including an opening of membership to non Californian, and indeed non-US wineries and a reduction of membership costs - to a current levy of $1 per case with a maximum of $500 - then increased numbers. By 2003 there were 100 and by the end of 2008, there were 220, including recent arrivals such as Robert Mondavi and wines from Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Israel and Mexico. The embracing of the Meritage concept for Mondavi by Constellation is interesting, given the decision by the Mondavi family when they owned the brand not to adopt it for Opus One which would have been an obvious candidate. If Constellation puts export weight behind its Robert Mondavi Meritage Private Selection 2006, a high-volume wine selling at $10-12 in the US, its marketers will some explaining to do.

Jo Ahearne who is now a senior wine buyer for UK retail chain Marks & Spencer, recalls her confusion when studying for her Master of Wine - MW - qualification while working as a winemaker in South Australia. “One of the study papers that was sent from London included a reference to Meritage wines. I’d been in the wine industry for several years and done all my exams leading up to the MW, but I’d never heard of them. In the end, I called a wine store in Sydney to ask if they had any examples. They laughed and said that mine was the fifth call they’d had that day - all from similarly mystified MW students”. Since then, Ahearne has never come across the term again. And never needed to. Meritage is not actually part of the MW syllabus; it just happened to feature on that occasion.

The - relative - surge of interest in Meritage in California and the keenness of Margaret River in particular to promote its mastery Bordeaux-style reds and whites as a unique point of interest, raises three questions. First there is the need to define what one might expect from a Bordeaux blend in 2009 - within the rules laid down by French AOC and Meritage Association. Second, there’s the matter of whether those rules are as relevant as they were 20 years ago. And third, there’s the issue of whether the wine world actually needs a Meritage-style brand.

At the heart of the Meritage concept and the Margaret River claims is the notion that there is a valuably unique quality to the Bordeaux recipe. This is a view that is certainly held by Steven Spurrier, famously the instigator of the Judgment of Paris taster and now a Decanter columnist and consultant. “Let’s face the facts: the best red wines from Bordeaux are the greatest in the world and they are all, with the exception of Petrus which proves the rule, blends… There are two pillars on which a fine wine rests: fruit and terroir. Since the latter is a given, the argument concerning the importance of Bordeaux blends outside Bordeaux rests on fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have fruit in spades, but in a single style. As in fine cuisine, you need a pinch of this and a pinch of that to create complexity, finesse and harmony. To the simple concept of fruit, Cabernet Sauvignon brings firmness, Cabernet Franc brings fragrance, Merlot brings flesh, Malbec brings spice and Petit Verdot brings grip. Is this not better than single varietal fruit? It unquestionably is if the winemaker knows how to handle these differents elements. If he does not, he should stick to single varietals.”

New Zealand expert, Bob Campbell MW agrees that blending the two key Bordeaux red grapes has been very productive in his country. “First there was Cabernet Sauvignon (from the mid sixties) but with few exceptions it was rather green, tannic and generally nasty. The arrival of Merlot (from early eighties) as a blending wine helped boost Cabernet’s fortunes by softening it and diluting weedy characters”. In South Africa, the picture was rather different, as Michael Fridjhon recalls. “Until Meerlust Rubicon made a claim for blends being worth more than single variety wines, pure Cabernet fetched more than any red blend” . Today, he says that blends are definitely an important category in their own right.

But, if New Zealand Merlot has been beneficial to that country’s Cabernet Sauvignon, with the exception of two regions, the same can not be said of Australia - at least not in the view of James Halliday. “Merlot as a varietal had an extended happy hour in Australia, as it did in many other countries, but now there is a monumental hangover…. In Merlot’s glory days, it was planted indiscriminantly across virtually all Australian wine regions from very cool to distinctly warm. It is, of course, unsuited to the latter, but the eradication phase is yet to start in earnest… Next, it is agreed by all… [that] we have a very poor clonal Merlot base. Adding these together, it is no surprise to find that there is no longer a trophy for Merlot at the Sydney Wine Show, and the market has become aware of its shortcomings. Then you take into account the fact that, for most Cabernet Merlots, it is a case of putting the least bits of Cabernet together with the least bits of Merlot in the cellar, and hoping to get rid of them without too much attention being paid”. For Halliday, Margaret River and “to a lesser degree, the Yarra Valley”, are the exceptions to the rule. “The strongly maritime climate” of the former region seems to suit these blends very well, and, in each case, Margaret River heads his database lists in terms of the top-pointed wines. Indeed, one of his reds of the year was the Flametree 2007 Cabernet Merlot from that region which won numerous awards in 2008 including the all important Jimmy Watson Trophy.

As a Cabernet-Merlot, the Flametree fits the definition of a red Bordeaux blend as it was generally understood in 1988. In those days, Cabernet Franc, despite its occasional glories in Bordeaux was decidedly a bit-player while Petit Verdot, if it featured at all, rarely ever represented more than 3%. Malbec was fast on its way to extinction in Bordeaux and Carmenère’s only presence in that region was almost exclusively restricted to the pages of history books. Looking back, the decision in 1980 of Jerry and Joyce Cain to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot on a vineyard in Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley would have struck many a Medoc chateau owner as downright eccentric. Today, however, greater clonal understanding of the Petit Verdot and the renaissance of the Malbec and Carmenère in Argentina and Chile respectively, has helped to change the picture radically. At the 2008 International Wine Challenge in London where some 1286 reds involving Cabernet Sauvigon or Merlot were tasted, 20 boasted Petit Verdot as their second most important grape, with percentages rising as high as 25% for silver medal winning Marqués De Griñón Emeritus 2004 from Spain. One of Chile’s gold medals in that same competition, the Carmen Wine Maker´s Reserve Red 2003, contained 20% Carmenère, a variety that, though legal, is still virtually unknown in Bordeaux. Revealingly, while the 2004 International Wine Challenge had some 256 “traditional” Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blends, that figure dropped to 153 last year, a fall from 17% of the category to 12%.

Over the same period, the proportion of single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots and wines containing 90% or more of one of those grapes rose from 48% to 62% - a trend which would presumably not be welcomed by the Meritage Association. More worrying, however, to supporters of the classic set of Bordeaux varietals, must be the gradual infiltration of outsiders ranging from the Tempranillo and Sangiovese to Pinot Noir, Grenache and beyond. 2008 was the year when a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zweigelt picked up an International Wine Challenge gold medal for Austria. The variety that has most successfully sneaked into the blend is the Syrah/Shiraz, a little of which can, it seems do as much for modern Cabernet-Merlot blends as Hermitage famously once did for top red Bordeaux. There was some Syrah in that award-winning Marques de Grinon Emeritus, as there was - 6% to be precise - in the gold medal Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Clairault, the most successful Western Australian winery in the competition. Ironically, given Margaret River’s claims to being the Bordeaux of the Southern hemisphere, the judicious use of the most famous grape of the Rhone is far from unusual. Other top class wineries that, according to International Wine Challenge records, have benefitted in this way include Voyager Estate and Vasse Felix.

Michael Fridjhon acknowledges the handicap that may be cause by total respect for Meritage/AOC rules. “In all competitions in which I have a say in the drafting of the rules, a Bordeaux blend can only have AOC varieties. However - I have tasted many wines which would not meet that criterion (e.g. include 3% Shiraz) but which are actually more immediately drinkable, more attractive, maybe even better. In the 19th century Syrah was planted in Bordeaux. Is its present outlaw status a strait-jacket for the Bordelais or a point of difference?”

In 2007 James Laube, one of the major columnists in the Wine Spectator wrote a blog entitled “At Age 20, Does Meritage Still Deserve Merit?” in which he admitted to always having had “mixed emotions” about the term, “since it requires an explanation”. And there, I think, is the rub. The creators of concepts like Meritage, and indeed the men and women responsible for French appellations tend to overestimate the knowledge and interest of the people who are going to end up drinking the wine. As Bob Campbell neatly puts it “[Cabernet-Merlot] blends are confusing to the masses though enlightening to the enlightened… Consumers (or at least “many consumers”) understand varieties. They know that Cabernet Sauvignon is big and tannic and that Merlot is softer and lighter. Most are less sure about what to expect from a blend – they tend to hang their hat on the dominant partner… [they] call Cabernet Merlot “Cabernet” and Merlot/Cabernet “Merlot”. James Halliday who produced excellent classic Bordeaux-blend at his Coldstream Hills winery in the Yarra Valley recalls the heyday of Merlot when “consumers would look at the Cabernet-Merlot bottle and say ‘I’ll have the Merlot’. I have now retired to gentler pursuits, but wouldn’t be surprised if they pointed at the same wine and said ‘I’ll have the Cabernet’.

The need for a category covering Cabernet and/or Merlot dominant wines is largely driven by the way retail stores and restaurant wine lists are laid out in the US. Consumers all too often turn straight to the area with which they feel comfortable - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz or Pinot Noir - and avoid the “miscellaneous” mixture of blends and unfamiliar varieties. But any such category needs to allow greater latitude than Meritage currently does for the addition of - say up to 15% - non-Bordeaux varieties; it needs to be marketed far more energetically and productively than Meritage. And, though this is an ideal that is unlikely ever to be achieved, it needs to come with some qualitative credentials…

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