Michigan Meritage Merits Mention

The term ‘meritage’?


First, if you’re going to invent a word, why make it one you have to teach everyone how to pronounce?  Second, if you’re going to combine two words to make a third, why use two words that have nothing to do with the product you’re trying to represent;  in this case, a blend of Bordeaux varietals?

‘Meritage’ is a combination of merit and heritage.  Woo hoo! What do either one have to do with cabernet, merlot or the south of France?

‘Fess Up Time

Okay, so  that’s just sour grapes—pun intended.  I couldn’t care less if they call the stuff  ‘meritage’ or ‘schmeritage’ or  ‘panda vomit’; I’m still smarting because in 1988, when the term was ramrodded into  our lexicon, all fifteen of my entries to the Bordeaux Blend Naming Contest were rejected unilaterally by the soon-to-be-called Meritage Association.

And I still maintain that my worst entry was better than the one they ended up with.

You be the judge:

Like, my first thought was, how about a combo of yummy and buzzYuzz.  Who couldn’t pronounce that?

Or a combo of all five potential meritage grapes—cabernet, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cab franc?  ‘Merlabmalfrancpet’.   Sound it out, moron—or put in some hyphens if you’re that mentally challenged.

Or my favorite, an acronym for ‘If you spill any on those white pants you will never get the stain out’,  ‘Iysaotwpywngtso’, which I thought sort of had a Native American ring to it; a Western feel, very ‘California’.

Screw ‘em

Anyway,  I was railroaded by the judges, so now we’re stuck with ‘meritage’.  And for a long time, we were stuck with meritage from California alone, since in order to call your wine ‘meritage’ you have to pay the Meritage Association real money, a buck per case,  and not everybody leap-frogged onto that particular bandwagon.

Why should they when they call their wine ‘claret’ for free?

But once it became reasonably clear that despite our best intentions, the name wasn’t going to go away, the meritage roster  began to expand until even here in frozen, funky, forgotten and forlorn Michigan, a few well-respected suckers anted up the per-case tariff:  to wit: Cherry Creek Cellars, Fenn Valley Vineyards , Leelanau Wine Cellars, Lemon Creek Winery and St. Julian Wine Company.

'Shou' symbol, meaning 'longevity, from Wyncroft

Still, the bulk of Michigan wineries  dabbling in the dynamics of the Bordeaux blend have chosen to go the thrifty route and coin their own  handle—and thus continue to handle their own coin.  Domaine Berrien uses ‘Crown of Cab’, since they consider it the ‘crown jewel ‘of their portfolio.  Pentemere’s goes by ‘Le Griffon’ for reasons known only to the untamed savages of Boondockia; i.e., Tecumseh.  Wyncroft Cellars calls theirs’ ‘Shou’—Chinese for ‘longevity’ which the wine indeed displays.  Accurately, if somewhat less imaginatively, Raftshol’s label reads simply ‘Red’.

Frustratingly, not one has yet expressed interest in signing up for ‘Yuzz’, even at my bargain per-case  rate.

So here’s an overview of Michigan’s generic meritage heritage—in all, a remarkable muster for a state that was once told it was too cold to make decent white wine, let alone red.   I’ve coined a handle for the naysayers, but unfortunately, my editors won’t let me print it in a family wine column.  

Tasting Notes (in no particular order):

  1. Shawn Walters

    2005 LEELANAU WINE CELLARS, ‘MERITAGE’, LP, about $22:  Perhaps the bargain of the bunch; winemaker Shawn Walters has captured more nuances of top-shelf California meritages than I would have thought possible in the Great White North; chocolate, deep berry notes and a smokiness that raises the bar for Michigan reds, even as you’re closing the bar with a glass of red in your hand.

  2. 2005 LONE OAK ‘VIN DU ROI’, MICHIGAN, around $25:  An initial smokiness slips from the glass, quickly replaced by scents of blueberry and cassis.  Moderately tannic with a spice box array of flavors and an interesting hint of freshly popped corn, Lone Oak’s ‘wine of the king’ is a bit less than regal—somewhat thin through the middle and sliding to a finger-snap finish.
  3. 2007 DOMAINE BERRIEN, ‘CROWN OF CAB’, LMS, around $25  The winery considers this the coronet of its catalog; it contains all five Bordeaux varietals.  24 months on oak lends nice tobacco and vanilla scents to first-impressions, but an essential core of fruitiness is missing.  A one-dimensional wine without much depth but free of major flaws, it is an acceptable every-day table wine.
  4. 2005 LEMON CREEK WINERY, ‘MERITAGE’, around $22:  The Lemon family has been a Berrien County fixture for 150 years.  They  haven’t figured out how to grow lemons yet, but brother, do they grow grapes.  Lightweight but smooth, this vanilla-tinged claret shows characteristics of the big three:  cabernet (juicy blackberry and a bit of mint), merlot (Damson plum and pie cherries) , cab franc (cassis and violets) in a simple but satisfying package.
  5. 2007 RAFTSHOL ‘CLARET’, LP, about $12: A solid entry from this former dairy; beautifully balanced and long-lived blend named for the traditional ‘claret’ cabernet duo, sauvignon and franc.  Though a bit restrained on the nose, the wine is lively nonetheless, showing both sweet and tart cherry notes and a certain gravitas—Raftshol was one of the first wineries in Northern Michigan to plant red vinifera varietals, and the experiment is now paying dividends.
  6. 2007 RAFTSHOL ‘RED’, LP, about $12:  Exhibiting generous aromas of black cherry and raspberry, the wine’s best feature may be its silky texture which wraps itself around a solid core of tobacco, black currant and licorice.  A nicely balanced selection which offers notable sophistication at the price and a wealth of sharp, cool-climate fruit flavors.
  7. 2005 ST. JULIEN, BRAGANINI, RESERVE MERITAGE, MICHIGAN, about $30: Marred by a slightly vegetable overtone, the fruit tones are overworked, hollow and dilute and concealed behind grainy tannins.  In general, a wine that enters the race but does not quite cross the finish line.
  8. 2006 WYNCROFT ‘SHOU’, AVONLEA VINEYARD, LMS, about $45: Pronounced ‘show’ and named after the Chinese symbol for ‘longevity’, Wyncroft’s flagship wine is a pretty, Pauillac-styled blend of cabernet (80%) and cab franc with a touch of merlot.  Well-integrated tannins  balance the blackberry and black currant palate; there’s a touch of jalapeno and a slightly hot finish.
  9. NV (2005-2006) PENTAMERE ‘LE GRIFFON’, MICHIGAN, about $32:  A classic Bordeaux-styled blend with blackberry and pepper in the nose, a cool, green-herbed mid-palate with some fruit, predominately Morrello cherry and plum.  A middle Michigan winery  (in Tecumseh , south west of Ann Arbor) has produced a work in progress which still needs a bit of cellar time to settle into itself.
  10. 2007 FENN VALLEY, ‘MERITAGE’, LMS, about $20:  Cassis, coffee and blueberries are wrapped up in a silky blanket; a food-friendly wine showing delicious acidity, a nice mineral lift and very few rough edges.  Fruity and refreshing; voluptuous, pretty with a good finishing clarity and no bite.  2008 vintage to be released in June, 2010.
  11.  NV (2007) TABOR HILL ‘RED ARROW RED’, (LMS), around $20: A textbook ‘breakfast’ red boasting toast and coffee aromas, though at the expense of fruit.  Light berry notes do not entirely rescue this somewhat heavy-handed selection which is chunky and a bit simplistic.
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