Andy Perdue

Meritage bottlings merit attention

Perhaps no region in the wine world is as well equipped to make quality Meritage-style red blends as Washington state.

We are a red-heavy region with a particular affinity for Bordeaux varieties and one of the regions able to grow all the approved grapes.

A group of U.S. producers created The Meritage Association in 1988, and its guidelines for bottling a Meritage require any combination of the “noble” Bordeaux varieties. For a red, that would be Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carménère and the little-known Gros Verdot and St. Macaire. A white Meritage is limited to Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle du Bordelais. No grape can contribute more than 90% of the final blend.

Each gives a winemaker tremendous flexibility in creating a high-quality final blend. It is as if this style of red blend was made for Washington vineyards. 

The Cabernet-heavy vineyards of the Columbia Valley and abundance of Merlot are the bedrock of Washington reds. A variety of microclimates and soils provide the working material. The addition of drought-resistant Cabernet Franc offers smooth spices, adding complexity without bringing heaviness. 

The discovery and re-emergence of Carménère during the 1990s was another valuable piece for a Washington winery’s Meritage program. Until 1994, Carménère was thought to be a lost variety, a victim of the phylloxera scourge that destroyed the vineyards in much of Europe 150 years ago. It turns out that a grape planted in Chile, thought to be Merlot, actually was Carménère. This happy accident of history led to it being imported and replanted in Washington.

Malbec, best known in Argentina’s Mendoza region and France’s Cahors region, gets its structure from acidity rather than tannins. This makes it easier to drink and a great blender to smooth out Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Northwest is particularly well suited for growing this big red, so Malbec’s inclusion in blends is a benefit. And Washington Malbec can compete on the global stage.

It’s not surprising red blends have become the state’s biggest wine category, with a large amount of the grapes from the Columbia Valley. Among the finest examples in my memory is from DeLille Cellars in Woodinville with its Harrison Hill red blend. Its namesake vineyard is near downtown Sunnyside in the Snipes Mountain American Viticultural Area. All the grapes come from the same hillside vineyard overlooking Interstate 82. 

Each of the past 25 vintages of Harrison Hill Red Wine has brought a bold, structured red built for the long haul. Repeated tastings show it’s very cellar-worthy, gaining complexity over time. I was fortunate enough to find some older vintages via an auction at below-market prices. They are among my most prized bottles.

The word Meritage is a mashup of "meritorious heritage,” and such wines aim to emulate Bordeaux traditions. They are designed to be the best wines from a particular winery. A red Meritage is expected to be a producer’s most expensive wine. This for the most part is true, especially in programs that put great care in nurturing vineyards. 

In the case of Harrison Hill, the Cabernet Sauvignon vines are among the state’s oldest, dating to the early days of the state’s wine industry and thus adding complexity to the finished product. Harrison Hill isn’t the only Meritage-style wine from DeLille, but I believe it is the most distinctive and should be among the most treasured in the Pacific Northwest. 

The recently released 2018 Harrison Hill at $105 is a classic example, blending Cabernet Sauvignon (61%), Merlot (26%) and Cabernet Franc (13%). The vineyard, farmed by the Newhouse family, is among the state’s best and most historically interesting, adding to the wine’s allure.

As with any red wine, the ability to age is based mostly on its acidity or pH levels. In Washington, this isn't much of an issue. The grapes have naturally high acidity, so their ability to age is quite good. American wine consumption habits, however, mean that aging a red wine often involves nothing more than driving home from the store or winery, popping the cork and enjoying it with dinner. 

Aged red wines rarely appeal to the more casual wine drinker, so aging wine is rare. But if you really like a particular wine, buy a case to drink over the course of at least three years — or more — and note how the wine evolves. Or buy a half case of one vintage and a half case of the following vintage to see if the wine is consistently delicious.

One weakness of the Meritage approach is the requirement to use only Bordeaux varieties. For example, including Syrah can add midpalate weight that other varieties may not provide. The same rings true with blending the Italian grape Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon into an intriguing style of wine called Super Tuscan in the Chianti region. But Meritage rules don’t allow either, because Syrah and Sangiovese aren’t Bordeaux grapes.

An early and steadfast supporter of The Meritage Association was the late Harry McWatters, the Okanagan Valley vintner dubbed by Canadian wine critics as “the Robert Mondavi of British Columbia.” He was the first in Canada to produce both red and white Meritage wines, long viewed as some of the country’s most age-worthy.

Alas, fewer producers are using the term “Meritage” for these styles of wine. Among them is Dr. Brian Petersen at Mosquito Fleet Winery in Belfair, Wash. He uses Starboard Meritage for his Merlot-led Right Bank–styled red wine and Meritage Portside to designate his Left Bank- favoring Cabernet Sauvignon.

As you get out and about this summer — wearing a mask, of course — consider Meritage-style blends a natural extension of our region’s wine landscape. I hope you find some to celebrate.

Andy Perdue is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine. A stroke survivor, he lives in the heart of Washington wine country with his wife, teen daughter, a rescue dog and three unhappy cats.

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