A Wine by Any Other Name: An Ode to Bordeaux (and How Meritage and Claret Got Their Starts)

By Mike Davis

A Wine by Any Other Name: An Ode to Bordeaux (and How Meritage and Claret Got Their Starts)

What rhymes with heritage and pairs well with fall’s hearty meals?

A Meritage, of course. But there’s so much more to know about this versatile wine.

Since coming on the scene in the late '80s, this Bordeaux-style blend has intrigued wine drinkers. Some consider it as a more accessible alternative to a French Bordeaux, while others simply favor it as a unique celebration of California winemaking.

In fact, we entertain so many questions about Meritage, Bordeaux and Claret varietals that the answers deserve some attention here.

The Basics about Bordeaux

Like most studies about wine, we begin in France.

Bordeaux is considered the most-important wine region in France, if not the world, and winemakers there believe that complexity is achieved by using more than one grape varietal. That’s why most of the wines produced in the region are blends of two or more grapes.

Depending on where the winery estate, called a chateau, is located in Bordeaux, red wines will typically have a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend – especially on the Left Bank – or a majority of Merlot in the blend, as favored on the Right Bank.

In Bordeaux, three other blending grape varieties are used as well:– Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. These, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are known as the five “noble” grape varieties of the Bordeaux region.

Especially in France, noble is a term used to denote grapes that produce the most exceptional wines. Here’s a closer look at the five noble grapes used in a Bordeaux blend:

Cabernet Sauvignon: This red grape was developed in Bordeaux hundreds of years ago and is the main grape of Left Bank red blends. Cabernet Sauvignon gives these long-lived wines intense tannins and structure. On the Right Bank, and in the regional red wines of Bordeaux, it often is used as a blending grape to make Merlot-based or Cabernet Franc-based wines more robust.

Merlot: Native to Bordeaux, Merlot is used to produce some of the most-important wines in the region. Merlot is by far the most widely used grape varietal in Bordeaux and is planted on nearly 100,000 acres in the region. On the Right Bank, Merlot is the base for soft and complex red blends. On the Left Bank, where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, Merlot often is used as a blending grape to soften tannin structures and add ripe fruit characteristics.

Cabernet Franc: The most important of the minor red blending grapes in Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc often is used to soften tannin structure and add herbaceous and aromatic notes. It also is used as the majority grape in Bordeaux blends at certain chateaus in the region.

Malbec: This is a minor blending grape used to add deep color, tannins and dark fruit characteristics. Malbec never is used as the primary grape in a Bordeaux blend.

Petit Verdot: A minor red blending grape used to add color, tannins and alcohol, Petit Verdot never is used as the primary grape in a Bordeaux blend.

Let’s Get Clear about Claret

Remember that cultures have celebrated wine from Bordeaux for thousands of years? Even wars have been fought over its control. We can credit one land grab for power for the Claret still enjoyed today.

When Henry II of England wed Eleanor of Aquitaine, who controlled Bordeaux, this region fell under English rule. Shortly after the royal pairing, England discovered the wines of Bordeaux and began shipping these fabled wines all over Europe – a reign that lasted 300 years. English control of Bordeaux ended after the Hundred Years War, but Bordeaux’s position as the world’s premier wine-growing region remained intact and only grew in esteem. Red Bordeaux still is popular in England, where it’s called Claret. So essentially, Claret is the English term for a French Bordeaux blend.

The Merits of Meritage

How does a Meritage relate to Bordeaux? Shakespeare might argue that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

A group of winemakers in 1987 wanted to produce and sell high-end wines consisting of a combination of varietals. At this time, only wines composed of at least 75 percent of a varietal could list it on the label. They coined the term “Meritage,” and winemakers must ensure Meritage wines contain a combination of at least two of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, Petite Verdot, Gros Verdot and St. McCaire for the reds and Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion and Muscadet for the whites. No single varietal can compose more than 90 percent of the blend.

You’ll also see the term Meritage used loosely when referring to a Cabernet Sauvignon-based, Bordeaux-style blend – most often in California, especially the Napa Valley.

Post by Mike Davis and Cara Stewart


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