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White Proprietary and Meritage Blends: Traditional and Exotic Combinations
Tucked away on merchants' shelves in the white wines section are treasures just waiting to be found. Sometimes shelved under the heading "White Blends" or "White Meritage" or "Other Whites," these are dry wines that depart from conventional varietal bottlings, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Blanc, and offer a wealth of complex combinations and flavors.
The combination involved in wines labeled "Meritage" (rhymes with heritage) is the classic white Bordeaux mixture of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon in varying proportions, with neither varietal making up more than ninety percent of the blend. These wines were discussed at length in an earlier "Vintner's Choice" column. White Meritage wines sometimes sport a proprietary name, such as "Royale" from Kendall-Jackson's Cardinale Winery and "Spectrum" from de Lorimier Winery.
The combination in white proprietary wines not labeled "Meritage" is not so easily generalized. They can be blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon in whatever proportion the winemaker wants (and may actually qualify as a Meritage blend without being called such), or they can be blends of whatever white varietals the winemaker elects to use. Perhaps the best known of these wines is "Conundrum" from Caymus Vineyards, which is (usually) a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscat Canelli from various California growing areas. Other examples include Qupe's "Bien Nacido Cuvee" (Chardonnay and Viognier), "Vendimia" from Murrieta's Well (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Frontignon) and Bonny Doon's "Le Sophiste" (Roussanne and Marsanne, both Rhone varietals). Both Navarro Vineyards and Claiborne & Churchill make a wine called "Edelzwicker," which is a blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat, and Handley Cellars offers "Brightlighter White," a fifty-fifty blend of Gewurztraminer and Riesling.
Viognier Gets Into the Act
An interesting point to note here is the increasing use of Viognier, not only in these blended wines, but also in traditional varietally labeled wines. For example, both Kunde Estate Winery and Iron Horse Vineyards blend some Viognier into their Sauvignon (or Fume) Blanc bottlings instead of, or in supplement to, Semillon. Small amounts of Viognier are also blended into Syrah bottlings by a couple of wineries (notably Zaca Mesa) to add a floral note to the red wine, as is done in French Southern Rhone winemaking. This practice may be due to the fact that the producer doesn't have enough Viognier on hand for a varietal bottling, and doesn't want the tiny quantity of delicious juice to go to waste. On the other hand, the Viognier may not be good enough to bottle on its own, but is found to add a special extra dimension to another wine in a positive sense.
Joy Sterling of Iron Horse explains how Viognier made it into their Fume Blanc: "In the blending tasting for this release [the 1994 Fume Blanc], I was surprised that the whole family passed over the Sauvignon Blanc, a wine we have loved since we started making it in 1978, and we passed by a sample of 100 percent Viognier. We love the blend [75 percent Sauvignon blanc, 25 percent Viognier] because it expresses the T-bar-T Vineyard where both varieties were grown, has the rich full fruit of Viognier and the clean, citrusy finish of Sauvignon Blanc."
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For those who would like to get a better grasp of "wine speak" in coming up with descriptions for such diverse wines, Beringer Vineyards now offers two sturdy, colorful, easy-to-use wine tasting wheels -- one for reds and one for whites -- which are an evolution of the original "Wine Aroma Wheel" developed by Professor Ann C. Noble of the University of California at Davis. The wheels feature terms commonly used to describe the aromas, tastes, flavors and mouthfeel of wine, as well as descriptors often used in connection with certain wine varietals, such as pineapple and vanilla for Chardonnay and black pepper and blackberry for Zinfandel. Each wheel is an extremely useful tool for wine drinkers interested in identifying, describing and remembering aromas and flavors in wine. They're great for wine tasting groups and clubs, too. The Beringer Wine Tasting Wheels -- the set of two in a handy, sturdy container -- may be obtained by sending $3 (cash or check) to: Beringer Vineyards' Fulfillment Center, 615 Airpark Road, Napa, CA 94558. Allow four to six weeks for delivery. Very highly recommended.
Recently, the Vintners Club brought together 10 current-release examples of white proprietary and Meritage blends augmented by two "ringers" -- white varietal wines selected in order to challenge the panel to pick them out of the 12-wine blind tasting. One of the ringers was a very grassy style of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; the other one was a bottling of Trousseau Gris from Sonoma County. "What's Trousseau Gris?" you ask. Read on.
The tasting proved to be not only educational, but highly enjoyable, in that it offered a wide spectrum of delicious, well-made and sometimes exotic wines. The rankings in this case were more a reflection of personal preference than qualitative analysis, since almost all the wines were finely crafted efforts.
1995 Venezia White Meritage "Bianco Nuovo Mondo," Northern Sonoma County ($20)
A blend of 56 percent Sauvignon Blanc from several vineyard sites in northern Sonoma County (yielding characteristics ranging from grassy to tropical) and 44 percent Semillon from the Osborne Vineyards on the eastern slope of Alexander Valley, the 1995 Venezia is a beautifully structured wine offering pleasant scents of lemon-lime citrus, white melon, minerals and a hint of lanolin from the Semillon. The flavors replicate the aromas with the addition of a peachy note. Moderately viscous and smooth. Made by Geyser Peak Winery.
1995 Langtry Meritage White Wine, Guenoc Estate Vineyards, Guenoc Valley ($21)
Guenoc Winery in Lake County bottles its Meritage wines under the Langtry label and takes the Meritage concept very seriously. Its Langtry wines are always the epitome of class and elegance. In the case of the 1995 Langtry Meritage White Wine, a blend of 83 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 17 percent Semillon, the wine was entirely barrel fermented on the lees (sur lie), which imparts a rich texture, and was aged nine months in completely new French and American oak barrels. Pleasant scents of spicy pear, orange blossoms, lemony citrus, vanilla and a hint of smoky oak define the nose. On the palate, the wine is full bodied with good depth and concentration, exhibiting vibrant citrus-peachy fruit; excellent acid balance.
1993 Gabrielli Ascenza, Mendocino ($12)
An exotic and successful blend of Riesling (37 percent), Chenin Blanc (36 percent), Semillon (24 percent) and Gewurztraminer (3 percent), the wine's aromas alone are worth the very reasonable price of admission: slightly toasty and nutty, with tangerine-like fruit plus lemon peel, set off by a hint of clove spice. Creamy, but with a slight bite and adequate acidity, the uncommon flavors and mouthfeel exhibit richness. Try it, you'll like it.
N/V Gundlach-Bundschu Polar Bearitage, California ($10)
You gotta love this wine if only for the label -- a hedonistic polar bear standing on its hind legs in a vineyard tipping wine from a giant goblet into its maw. The wine's pretty juicy, too, with just enough complexity from the blend of 70 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 30 percent Chardonnay to give it definition and moderate depth. The aromas and flavors suggest honeydew melon, canned peaches, citrus, pineapple and a hint of fresh-cut grass. Soft and round in the mouth, and quite dry, the wine shows better if it is chilled down just a bit more than normal (that is, it's best right out of the refrigerator). A surprisingly good wine at this bargain price, especially when found discounted at the supermarket.
1995 Beringer Alluvium Blanc, Knights Valley ($15)
Beringer has replaced its traditional white Meritage bottling with this Alluvium Blanc, which permits winemaker Ed Sbragia much greater freedom in the art of blending. In this case, he used nearly equal portions, 45 and 44 percent respectively, of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, ten percent Chardonnay and one percent Viognier to produce an impressive blend. The wines were vinified separately, and small French oak barrels (primarily Nevers oak with medium-plus toast and more than 60 percent new) were used for fermentation and ageing on the lees (sur lie) for more than eight months, with stirring every two weeks. Sbragia also put the wines through complete malolactic fermentation to enhance mouthfeel and add a buttery nuance. The aromas and flavors exhibit melon, golden delicious apple, spicy pear and honeyed fig.
1995 Caymus Conundrum, California ($18)
Winemaker Jon Bolta has had success with this innovative white wine blend since the first bottling. True to its original intention, the 1995 version is an exciting, crisp blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli and Semillon from grapes harvested in Tulare, Napa, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Marin counties; the percentages are not disclosed by the winery, hence the "conundrum." Certainly the most perfumed wine in this group, the 1995 Conundrum offers fragrant, heady scents of white pepper, rose petals and honeysuckle. On the palate, the wine is round and smooth with just a trace of sweetness and lots of juicy pear and Muscat-influenced fruit. Unless you've concocted a complex, spicy Asian dish with lots of mango and other tropical fruit enhanced by hot chiles, the Conundrum isn't a wine ideally suited for food pairings; but for animated sipping, it's perfect.
1995 Fanucchi Trousseau Gris, Fanucchi Wood Road Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($11)
This was one of the "ringer" varietal wines included to test the panel's palate. It was a mystery to most all of us, although the varietal (pronounced "tru-Sew gree") is widely planted in California and was used years ago with great success in wine labeled as "Gray Riesling." This version, from a cool-climate vineyard, offers pleasant aromas of fresh peaches and fruit cocktail, which are replicated on the palate. Not particularly complex, but tasty with adequate acidity.
1995 Yorkville Cellars Eleanor of Aquitane, Mendocino ($16)
This is one classy wine. A harmonious and delicious 50-50 blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc produced from estate grapes grown in the Yorkville area between the eastern end of the Anderson Valley and Cloverdale in Mendocino County, the wine's slightly honeyed aromas focus on green apple, white melon, ripe fig and a touch of caramel. On the palate, the rich, generous flavors are reminiscent of citrus and melon fruit; excellent acidity keeps everything in perfect balance. The complex nature of the wine is a product of complete barrel fermentation and ageing in 100 percent new French oak for nine months. Named in honor of one of the most influential women of 12th Century Europe, who was the wife of King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, as well as the mother of one of Western civilization's great heroes, Richard the Lion Heart, and also one of the greatest villains, King John, this wine shows the finesse one would expect from a fine white Bordeaux. A heavy, beautifully sculpted bottle completes the package. If you have trouble finding it, call the winery at (707) 894-9177.
1996 Cloudy Bay Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($17)
This was the other "ringer" in the tasting, and proved to be so distinctive that most all the tasters were able to discern that it was a varietal Sauvignon Blanc. But what a Sauvignon Blanc! Forward, almost pungent, very grassy nose that offers vivid tropical-passionfruit and grapefruit aromas that are either positive or negative depending on whether one appreciates the honest herbaceousness of real Sauvignon Blanc or requires the mild, shock-no-one, fruity style so much in evidence today. In the mouth, the wine offers peppery melon fruit and lots of grassy notes, buoyed by excellent acidity. Winemaker Kevin Judd put the wine through cool fermentation, predominantly in stainless steel with a small percentage in French oak barrels, in order to preserve the freshness inherent in the varietal. Hard to find, strictly allocated and a legend in its own time. Great stuff.
1995 Vichon Chevrignon, Napa Valley ($13)
A blend of nearly equal portions of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, Vichon Chevrignon (pronounced "Shev-reen-yon") was one of California's first -- if not the first -- white Meritage wines. The nose exhibits aromas of very ripe peaches and spice, which are replicated on the palate with a hint of white pepper. Viscous, though dry, the wine would pair nicely with spicy prawns with cilantro, fresh oysters and cheeses, especially chevre (goat) cheese. Due to changes in the Mondavi game plan, this is the last of the Vichon Chevrignons, with the brand being relocated to France and the existing winery operation on the Oakville Grade to become the facility for producing the La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi line of Italian varietal wines.
1995 Creston Vineyards Chevrier Blanc, Paso Robles ($12)
Fruity, slightly oaky nose of pineapple, citrus, melon and fig. On the palate, the generous, though not particularly complex, flavors replicate the nose. Adequate acidity.
1995 Cardinale Royale Meritage White Table Wine, California ($12)
Patterned after the white wines of the Graves region in France, the blend here is 78 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 22 percent Semillon from vineyards in Napa Valley, Alexander Mountain and Sonoma County. The wine was completely barrel fermented and aged on the lees (sur lie) for seven months in French oak, 35 percent of which was new, which imparts vanilla and toasty notes. The toast here is, however, quite strong, and masks the citrus fruit. The flavors lack complexity and the acid could be brighter. Disappointing, given the winery's past success with Royale.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.