I’ve often talked about how winemaking is the meeting ground between art and science, how chemistry aids us in our understanding of the craft but at the end of the day it’s all about taste. Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining Winemaker Robert Rex and the Custom Crush Winemaker Cecilia Valdivia as they sat down to begin formulating the blend for the 2007 vintage of Deerfield’s immensely popular Red Rex. For those of you not familiar with this particular wine, I’ll summarize by saying it is a mega-blend, the likes of which would only be produced in California because it breaks all the rules. In this blog I wrote about how unlike Coca Cola, two vintages are never the same. For this reason Robert never follows a set formula, he simply seeks to make the best possible wine from the grapes Mother Nature deigned to give us. And so the character of the wine can change dramatically though the goal remains the same: To produce a complex, approachable, full-bodied wine that covers every inch of your palate. This year’s Red Rex is a fascinating blend produced from 7 varietals, 17 vineyards, and no less than 25 different lots (individual batches of wine). While this may seem like an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” blend, in fact the exact opposite is true: Each component was carefully considered and selected because it will add a specific desirable feature to the finished wine.
So where does a winemaker start? Well of course, it starts in the vineyard. All of the grapes from the different vineyard produced separately as their own wines. As these wines are made, the winemaker becomes intimately familiar with each of them. So on paper, Robert first begins to plan out which wines he thinks ought to be included in the blend and in what amounts. A Cellar Rat has a busy day carefully pulling samples from all 25 different lots. Then a representative blend of all the wines is made. Next comes the fun part – we tasted through every single lot of wine so Robert could reassess each component of the blend individually. The only way to improve your palate is by practice and yesterday I felt as though my palate had a crash course that would normally have taken months or years. Tasting each wine and comparing and contrasting them with the others really allows you to see how each one is different and learn what your likes and dislikes are. Also certain factors alter your perception so having a winemaker there to explain what you’re experiencing is invaluable. For example, higher acidity can create the impression of high alcohol when in fact that is not the case. Having the lab results of the actual amounts of acids, alcohol, pH balance and residual sugar is helpful too because it allows you to understand the correlation between the various components.
After every instrument was individually experienced, we next listened to the whole concerto. It was incredible how it was possible to detect and pick out the individual characteristics of the different wines we had tasted earlier even though they were present in such miniscule amounts. Now that the winemaker has a better idea of the wines and how they harmonize, Robert will tweak the ratios of the blend and come back for round two with his adjustments. This time instead of tasting every component we will taste several different versions of the blend to fine tune the orchestra and find the one that works best. I expect that the 2007 Red Rex will receive a standing ovation when the house lights come up.
Yet while many people enjoy Meritage wines, I’ve found that many don’t know much about these delightfully complex wines which are essentially synonymous with “Bordeaux blend”. I’ve noticed that many wine enthusiasts are inexorably drawn to pronouncing Meritage with a long “a”, as in montage. The propensity to Frenchify the word is perfectly understandable, because otherwise we’d all be going around convinced that Cabernet rhymes cabinet. However, Meritage is instead a purely American invention that rhymes with heritage. It was coined by the Meritage Association out of necessity, because in the same way that Champagne can only be so-called when it is made in the Champagne region of France, international law forbids the Bordeaux moniker from being applied to wines produced elsewhere. Recognizing the need, some clever Californians in the 1980s joined the words “merit” and “heritage”, thusly creating the word “Meritage”. The Meritage Association (now known as the Meritage Alliance) dictates precisely what constitutes a Meritage wine and a winery must belong to the Alliance (and pay them tithes) in order to make use of the trademarked name on their label.
According to the Alliance’s website, a Meritage must be a blend of at least two of the Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, and must contain no more than 90% of a single varietal. Less common Bordeaux varietals that may also me included are St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Garmenère. Although Deerfield doesn’t make one, there is such a thing as a white Meritage. These wines must be a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon (or the rarer Sauvignon Vert).
The term Meritage isn’t an official term recognized by alcohol regulators, and is instead merely intended to represent that the wine is a Bordeaux blend. The creators of the term perceive blends to be the highest form of the winemaker’s art and indeed, we pay homage to that ideal in that Deerfield’s flagship wine, DRX, is a Meritage blend. Few wines better exemplify the winemaker’s craft than a Meritage made by Winemaker Robert Rex. After all, blending is his specialty. To produce it, Robert tastes every barrel of Bordeaux varietals he made in a given year and then selects the very best barrels from the various lots that will make it into this blend. Think of it as an exclusive party that requires the right credentials to attend. He then creates the blend with the Old World in mind: Less focus on fruit forwardness, and more attention to structure, elegance and terroir. The sense of place that accompanies the DRX springs from the earthiness that defines it.
Now that you’re in the know, be careful! You’ll find that 90% of the people you encounter, sometimes even those steeped in wine lore, love a good Meri-tah-ge. I usually don’t mention the correct pronunciation unless I’m asked. Besides, it’s not the pronunciation that matters – it’s what’s in the bottle that makes the difference!