Blended wines can rival a maker's best stuff

By GARY ROBINS, Food and wine guy

Most wines in North America are categorized by the grape varietal (wine containing 75 percent or more of that specific grape variety, be it cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, etc.).

The type of grape is important to know, but is not necessarily the most important information. From my view as a waiter, I sometimes see in people’s eyes what their first reaction was to a specific varietal of wine, when it is mentioned. If they did not like this certain wine’s taste, that experience can influence their whole perception of that varietal.

This does an injustice to the art of the winemaker. You can’t judge all wines of that specific varietal from that particular wine. The winemaker has great control over the wine, and we need to get to know the specific winemakers to understand their products. One of the best ways to see what is in the winemaker’s heart is to try one of their blended wines.

There are three ways in the U.S. to create a blended wine. The first is to call it a “table wine,” red or white. Second would be to create a “proprietary name” for a specific wine blend (i.e. Opus One). There is a new way (as of the late 1980s) of creating a blended wine, and that is to call it a “meritage” (MERIT-ij), a name created by combining the words merit and heritage. A group of wineries have created the Meritage Association and have laid out certain guidelines (approved by the U.S. government) to call it meritage.

Table wine is a term that legally means not having restrictions on what grapes or in what quantities of grapes go in the bottle. The main objection to the term “table wine” is the negative connotation that it can create. Some people see the word “table wine” and think it is not as good as a varietal wine, a wine that has a fancy proprietary name, nor a meritage.

This is not true. What creating a table wine can do is give the winemaker the freedom to create the best wine possible. There are some great table wines on the market now. Simply ask your sommelier or wine merchant for suggestions. I suggest trying Tamarack Cellars’ Firehouse Red.

Meritage wines are a legal style of wine. I feel that what the term meritage should mean to you is that this wine (white or red) is the best one that a specific winemaker can produce. When wineries choose to become part of the Meritage Association, they are putting limits on themselves (if they choose to put the word meritage on the label). They are limited to use specific types and percentages of grapes. The grape varieties that can be used are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenere.

One of the significant rules of the Meritage Association for the customer is that the meritage blend should be the brand’s most expensive offering. I feel that status is a part of the thinking behind this, but from what I have tasted, the meritage blends are excellent wines and should be tried.

Let’s look at the proprietary labels. Many who grew up in the 1970s remember two proprietary wines that had big marketing campaigns in the U.S. These were Blue Nun from Germany, and Lancers from Portugal. I believe the proprietary label was used to make a cheap wine to be able to be imported to the United States and create large market share.

Proprietary labels today are used to showcase the best of the winemaker. They tend to have limited bottling, and are very expensive. Robert Mondavi was one of the people who made the best use of the idea of proprietary name in the late 1970s. He decided to make his Sauvignon Blanc more exciting. He named the wine after what the French call the Sauvignon grape (Pouilly-Fume), the grapes of the white Bordeaux’s and the Lorie Valley wines. A white Bordeaux but with the American twist. Mr. Mondavi could have kept this name for himself, but has allowed all to use the name of Fume Blanc. Too bad he didn’t trademark it.

The label can only tell you so much. Get to know and trust the person making the wine. The label is only able to give you hints. Try to find some winemakers that you enjoy, just like you having your favorite painters. Remember that anyone can purchase the same paints, or at least mix paints, to produce the same colors, but they can’t reproduce his soul.

Treat wines like they are people — get out and meet a lot, but there keep only a few that you will want to spend a lot of time with. Think of wineries as families that you visit for holiday meals. You like the family as a whole, but a few are in the group you try to avoid.

Federal Way resident Gary Robins loves food and wine. E-mail:

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