Meritage in the making

 Grapes get their due credit when it comes to wine, but with blends, it’s all about the winemaker. After an April tasting of Jefferson Vineyards’ Meritage wines from eight vintages and a chat with winemaker Andy Reagan about the art of blending, I asked to follow his winemaking process for the Meritage 2010.

Jefferson Vineyards winemaker Andy Reagan uses Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to create the Meritage 2010.

The term Meritage, (which, incidentally, rhymes with ‘heritage’ no matter how much we want to make it sound French), is America’s proprietary name for a Bordeaux-style blend. A red Meritage must contain at least two of Bordeaux’s six red grapes—Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère—with one varietal comprising no more than 90 percent of the wine.

At Jefferson, they use Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Since each wine is already made, just chilling in neutral barrels, it seems like crafting a blend should be as easy as those tap soda concoctions Reagan loved to make as a child. But it’s more involved than that.

“These grapes make our other wines too, so the first piece to the puzzle is figuring out what’s actually feasible while still allowing us to meet production numbers,” says Reagan. An Excel spreadsheet spits out the first composite, then Reagan works up percentages for another three.

Sourcing grapes from six different sites, Reagan has 19 lots (see Winespeak 101) to taste out of barrel, making notes on each in order to pick a representative sample. I took a peek at his legal pad and saw an “up front fruit,” a “grippy finish,” a “perfecto” and a “da bomb delicious.” Using college-level calculations and graduated cylinders, he pulls the varying percentages from his chosen barrels, funnels the blend into a number-marked bottle and then summons tasters.

Even tasting takes talent though. “This is when a winemaker’s nose and palate really comes into play,” says Reagan. “You taste now, but have to imagine what’s going to change in the next six to 12 months,” he says. For him, while the fruit, alcohol and acidity are important, he gives tannin the most attention, basing a wine’s “oak recipe” around it. The high sugar levels in 2010’s grapes, for instance, mean using a lot of new French oak to stand up to the vintage’s extracted tannins.

The first wine from our trial line-up was the Excel special: 44 percent Cabernet Franc (CF), 36 percent Merlot (M), 10 percent Petit Verdot (PV) and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon (CS). It was juicy and pleasantly smoky, but somehow less attractive being the computer-generated model. I found No. 2, with 50 percent CF, 30 percent M and 20 percent PV, wonderfully ripe, but with a menthol quality that was throwing me off (Reagan didn’t notice it). We both loved No. 3 (50 percent M, 20 percent CF, 20 percent PV and 10 percent CS)—all black cherry and coffee. With 55 percent PV, 20 percent CF, 15 percent CS and 10 percent M, No. 4 tasted more like a straight Petit Verdot (I wrote down cedar and stewed rhubarb) than a Meritage, which goes to show the power that certain varietals wield over others.

Reagan took the trials home that night to see how they would change aromatically and how they would pair with food. Still favoring Nos. 2 and 3, he called me the following week to taste three tweaks on the front-runners. His final blend will go into barrel this month for a year and then age in the bottle for another two, but you need no such patience to taste Jefferson Meritage. The 2008, laden with cassis and chocolate, is for sale at the vineyard for $29.95 and the 2009 (my favorite from the eight vintages tasted in April) will be available April 2012. Wine club members might even score a bottle of Reagan’s “Meritage 7.8.9,” a blend of those three vintages of Meritage—a Meritage Meritage, if you will.

Reagan considers blending the biggest part of his job: “I play around with 30 different permutations to make one complex wine. It’s the fun part.” Thank goodness, because we like the drinking part.

Better than sex?

The new vintage of Glass House Winery’s sold-out “Meglio del Sesso,” which combines Norton and Chambourcin grapes with ground dark chocolate, was released last Friday. The infused wine is racked off the sediment (dubbed “chocolate mud”) and then sweetened slightly while the chocolate mud goes into owner Michelle Sanders’ wine cream chocolates. Yes. Yes, please.


Winespeak 101

Lot (n.): A batch of wine marked by varietal, date picked or vineyard site that’s kept separate until blended.


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