First, divest yourself of the temptation to pronounce it “Mary-Taj.” It’s pronounced like “heritage.” Yeah, that goes against the forced grown-up pronunciation boot camp we’ve all been through (Bach, Neufchatel, fiscal insolvency). But the reason it’s pronounced that way has a lot to do with its meaning. See, meritage is basically a made-up word. And unlike “bromance” or “amazeballs,” it was made up for a good reason.
If you know your wine history, you’ll know that in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine competition, some upstart Napa Valley winemakers beat the French at their own game. Safe to say, by the 1980s, American winemakers could lay claim to some high quality, high value wines. And by the late 1980s, some of those American winemakers were tired of giving their wines generic names.
See, early American winemaking fell hard for the “varietal” style, meaning a wine made largely with one kind of grape. Yep, wines named after a grape don’t have to be made with 100% of that grape; traditionally 75% is the minimum. But by the late 1980s, there were other winemakers in the New World who weren’t just making single varietal wines, but sophisticated blends. In fact, there were some winemakers in America doing pretty much exactly what they were doing in Bordeaux: blending incredible wines from a select variety of “noble” grapes. But because these wines weren’t at least 75% of a particular grape, they had to settle for terms like “red blend,” “table wine,” or a made up name (think: “Gary’s Great Grapesplosion!!!”) that carried no cultural cachet.
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Compare that to the French style, where a bottle with the Bordeaux designation on the label can draw enormous crowds—and prices— and you can understand the ‘80s American winemaker’s frustration.
Thus, the contest. No, not the Seinfeld episode. In 1988, a group of politely fed-up American winemakers got together. These were some of those winemakers who blended their wines specifically after the fashion of Bordeaux, and they wanted a little street cred—basically, a term that could be applied to any bottle made that way, and a term that would accrue interest and economic value over time. Like Bordeaux. This being America, naturally, they asked the people. And out of 6,000 entrants, meritage won.
Why “meritage”? Split it apart and you get “merit,” which means worth, and “heritage,” which associates the winemaking style with its French/Bordeaux heritage.
What will you get out of a bottle labeled “meritage”? As with Bordeaux, there’s typically a dominant grape variety around which the winemaker blends – usually Cabernet or Merlot – contouring and sculpting with other noble grapes (any bottle has to have a minimum of two). Meritage can be both red and white, and traditionally has to contain the best of a vintage. Which is why, yes, you might find a bottle priced at around $600, though many meritage wines are decently affordable, hovering at or under the $20 range. Whatever you buy, the idea is you should be able to trust that what’s inside is quality. After all, if you invent a word, you kind of have to stand behind it.