Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Friday Lineup: Wines of Meritage

For years it was not a problem. Any red-blooded winemaker in the Napa Valley during the Roaring '70s who grew Cabernet Sauvignon made it into a 100% varietal. Blending was for those Bordeaux effetests, where they had something known as "vintage problems." But that attitude gradually changed in the 1980s, and people started blending Cab with Merlot and maybe even with Cab Franc and Petit Verdot if they could find any. These wines were referred to collectively as "Bordeaux blends," but that term didn't sound very American, now did it, and so a contest was held in 1981, and the name Meritage won out.

Agustin Huneeus (google "Franciscan," "Veramonte," "Quintessa," etc., if you've not heard of him) didn't see anything wrong with blending. For a variety of reasons, he founded Estancia in 1986, sourcing grapes from prime vineyards in the Alexander Valley and the Pinnacles. In 1987, the first Estancia Meritage was made. In 1988, the Meritage Association (now Alliance) was born with Estancia as one of its founding members. Through the years, the word "meritage" was probably associated more with Estancia than any other winery. Estancia Meritage has always been known as a solid wine, if not one that would always bedazzle you.

Constellation now owns the brand, and they came to Manhattan this week with winemaker Scott Kelley and Estancia Meritage as the headliners for a vertical tasting of six of the wines followed by a pairing dinner at Gramercy Tavern. The evening was a very enjoyable one, the food was very good, and all six wines tasted well, with each of the vintages - 1994, 1997, 2001 A, 2001 B, 2004, and 2007 - having its advocates.

But beyond the tasting notes for each of the wines, the tasting showed the difficulties in a brand maintaining consistency from vintage to vintage, even beyond the expected differences in the grapes harvested and where in their aging cycle the wines are as you are tasting them. Consistency is neither good nor bad, but the event showed it is a very difficult thing to maintain, especially in California.

Consider this:

The six wines we tasted made over this 14-year period had three winemakers (Larry Levine, Robert Cook and Kelley), two significant owners (Hueneeus sold to Constellation in 1999), a major switch in grape sourcing from Alexander Valley (through 2001 A) to Paso Robles (from 2001 B), changes in winemaking philosophy (according to Kelley) from French to American to somewhere in between, and - we are talking about a Meritage after all - significant shifts in grapes used (heavy on Cab Franc early on, no Cab Franc and more Merlot later on) in the blends. We won't go into oak.

I've always enjoyed Estancia wines, especially the early Pinot Noirs and the Meritages, and I liked each of the Meritages at the Gramercy tasting. But, using a dreaded sports analogy, it does remind me a little of liking to root for the Eagles or the Giants or the Saints. Just don't expect the roster or the outcome to be the same from one year to the next.

Wine of the Week

2007 Richard Huber "Alle Reben" Bader Spatburgunder ($80). One of the more interesting German Pinot Noirs I've had recently - nice ripe, slightly gamy cherry fruit with a medium body. Long aftertaste, with some tonic water bitters in the finish.

Wines of Interest

2007 Avignonesi Tuscany Rosso di Montepulciano ($15). This is not a complex wine, but it is one of those Italian reds you can sip on forever because it has generous red cherry fruit up front and a minerally, raspy finish. A blend of 40% Prugnolo Gentile (the neighborhood version of Sangiovese), 30% Cab Sauv and 30% Merlot.

2008 Tikal Argentina Patriota ($20). Lots of good blueberry/blackberry juiciness with medium body and light tannins. Hints of chalk. Rich and satisying finish. Bonarda and Malbec blend.

Until next time...
Roger Morris