France's traditional Bordeaux region red grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot - have made it big in other parts of the world, including California. When referring to wines made from Bordeaux grapes, the term "claret" is often used in the United Kingdom, but is seen less frequently on U.S. bottlings. To confuse things further in the United States, the term "Meritage" - which rhymes with heritage - was created in 1988 by the Meritage Association, a group of vintners who wanted to differentiate their special Bordeaux blends from more generic-sounding "red table wine."
A red Meritage is a blend of two or more of the five major red Bordeaux grapes mentioned above, along with Carmenere, Gros Verdot and St. Macaire. No single variety can make up more than 90 percent.
When two or more of these grape varieties are blended, the resulting wine can be varietally labeled in the United States as long as it contains at least 75 percent of the predominant grape. For example, a wine made with 88 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 Cabernet Franc and 5 Merlot can be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon, but occasionally wineries choose to give a proprietary name to their blends, especially if all grape varieties are less than 75 percent.
We tasted 75 proprietarily named California Bordeaux-style blends after excluding many that were varietally labeled or included non-Bordeaux grapes like Syrah or Zinfandel. Most were 2005s and 2004s with a few from the 2006 and 2003 vintages, though all had to be the current and most recent release.
We liked a greater number of the 2004s, which began as a moderately warm vintage that had late summer heat spikes that pushed an early, high-quality harvest with less-than-normal yield. The 2004 fruit was very ripe due to the heat, but maintained acidity. Our favorite 2004s, while showing plenty of dark fruit, have the tannic structure and balance to carry it.
Conversely, the cooler 2005 vintage had greater yields - about 10 to 15 percent more than normal - and less ripeness than 2004. Slower ripening also often contributes complexity and more fruit tannin. Though we recommend fewer 2005s, three of our top wines are from this vintage.
Very good California red Bordeaux-style blends are readily available. While quality depends much on the vintage, equal measure rests on the work of the wine's vintner and winemaker.
Rating: TWO STARS 2005 Chappellet Napa Valley Mountain Cuvee ($26) Winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a little Petit Verdot. Slight floral and cinnamon hints boost juicy plum, cherry and pencil lead aromas. More layering on palate with bright acidity and grippy tannins nicely wrapped up in vanilla mocha.
Rating: THREE STARS 2005 Chimney Rock Elevage Stags Leap District Red Wine ($78) A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, this well-fruited wine is dense and balanced. Ripe blackberry, boysenberry, mocha and caramel notes are backed with requisite acidity; lovely structure for aging, with velvety smooth tannins. Very approachable for immediate enjoyment.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2004 Clos du Bois Marlstone Alexander Valley ($50) First made in 1978, this wine is crafted by winemaker Erik Olsen and aged in 97 percent new French oak barriques. Luscious black plum, fresh red cherry, spice and a subtle gravelly note on the nose; piquant blackberry, subtle toast and a warm sappiness on the palate with tea notes. Ends with fine gentle grip and long, bright finish. Very food-friendly. (69 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 Merlot, 2 Cabernet Franc, 4 Malbec, 3 Petit Verdot)
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2005 Dominus Estate Napanook Napa Valley Red Wine ($39) Christian Moueix intends for this wine - the just-released 10th vintage made from Napanook Vineyard grapes - to be enjoyed in the near term. High-toned chamomile, black raspberry, cedar, toasted sesame seed, slight brioche and mint chocolate aromas. Medium-bodied palate with bright huckleberry and dark plum skin on the lengthy finish; slightly firm tannins. (76 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 14 Cabernet Franc, 10 Petit Verdot)
Rating: TWO STARS 2004 Dry Creek Vineyard the Mariner Dry Creek Valley Red Wine Meritage ($40) The wine's label features a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Secret of the Sea." Rather "tarted up" in the words of one taster, with flashy oak and vanilla, a slight smokiness and lingering berry notes on the nose. Deep fruit flavors, sweet blackberry, toast, lingering cinnamon and a broad mouthful of tannins on the finish. (46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 Merlot, 6 Malbec, 5 Cabernet Franc, 3 Petit Verdot)
Rating: TWO STARS 2005 Franciscan Magnifcat Napa Valley ($50) Named after Johann Sebastian Bach's "Magnificat in D," this was one of the earliest blends - first created in 1985 by Agustin Huneeus - that would later be recognized under the category of Meritage or Bordeaux-style wines. Aromas and flavors of black cherry, vanilla, spice, pencil lead, cracked pepper, plum and cassis; good acidity, slightly astringent orange zest finish, lingering tannins. Releases in August. (73 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 23 Merlot, 2 Malbec, 1 Petit Verdot, 1 Cabernet Franc)
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2006 Hahn Estates Meritage Central Coast Red Table Wine ($20) Winemaker Adam LaZarre chose Merlot from cool-climate Santa Lucia Highlands Deer Valley Vineyard for this blend. Earthy nose with a touch of barnyard, plus overlying dusty blackberry, cherry, bright spice and dried herb. A sweet kick of ripe cherry-berry flavors with gentle toasty oak spice and attractive, moderately grippy finish. Good value. (33 percent Merlot, 30 Cabernet Sauvignon, 19 Petit Verdot, 11 Cabernet Franc, 7 Malbec)
Rating: TWO STARS 2004 Ironstone Vineyards Calaveras County Reserve Meritage Red Wine ($45) This waine, with fruit harvested from the Kautz family estate vineyards, was aged in underground caverns. Gravel hints, black licorice, tobacco and oak surround the core of roasted black fruit with raspberry highlights. Tart blackberry, nuanced tannins and minerally texture on the finish. (80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 8 Merlot, 7 Cabernet Franc, 5 Petit Verdot)
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2004 Merryvale Profile Napa Valley ($125) This is Merryvale's flagship Bordeaux blend that is aged 18 months in oak and bottled unfiltered. Ripe black fruit with candied vanilla bonbon, iron-rich soil and hints of mint on nose. Flavors of dense blackberry and a touch of oregano, with a lifted, mineral-driven finish that dries a bit but has an earthy expression.
Rating: THREE STARS 2005 Quintessa Rutherford Red Wine ($135) Winemaker Charles Thomas - with assistance from consultants Aaron Pott and Michel Rolland - produced this wine from the estate's biodynamic and organically farmed vineyards. A lovely, complex nose with spicy plum, dusty berry, earth and dried fennel hints. Lively palate has concentrated dark fruit, cassis and vanilla supported by terrific structure. Balanced and refined. (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot)
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2004 Right Bank Napa Valley Red Wine ($80) This wine from Lang and Reed Wine Co. - made of 53 percent Cabernet Franc and 30 Merlot with 9 Petit Verdot and 8 Cabernet Sauvignon - was inspired by a trip to St. Emillion, which owner-winemaker John Skupny and co-owner Tracey Skupny took almost 30 years ago. Understated nose with floral perfume and loam that has a nuanced lift. Flavors of brambly berry, ripe cherry, cassis, blueberry and sweet toast. Expressive.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2005 Robert Sinskey Vineyards POV Napa Valley Red Wine ($38) Winemaker Jeff Virnig crafts POV from Robert Sinskey Vineyards' point of view - with organic, biodynamically farmed grapes receiving minimal manipulation - which is how the wine received its name. Aromas and flavors of dark fruit: plum, blackberry and cassis, plus overlying tilled-soil earthiness and herb notes. Full-bodied on the palate, with fig-raspberry compote and a lovely tart-ish berry acidity; fine tannins on the lengthy finish.
Rating: TWO STARS 2004 Rosenthal The Malibu Estate Malibu-Newton Canyon Meritage Red Wine ($75) George Rosenthal planted his 250-acre estate vineyard in 1987 in a valley 4 miles from the coast. This third vintage is made from 50 percent Cabernet Franc, 30 Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 Merlot and 2 Petit Verdot. Nicely fruited nose with smoky dry wood, cedar, mineral notes and hints of oregano; fresh sweet tart plum on the tart palate, which shows some alcoholic heat on the finish.
Rating: THREE STARS 2005 Signorello Vineyards Padrone Napa Valley Proprietary Red Wine ($110) Padrone - a tribute to Raymond Signorello Sr. - is made of fruit from low-yielding vineyards located on a very rocky portion of the estate. The nose is layered and complex, with sweet dark plum, ripe blackberry, tobacco, smoked meat and floral and baking spice undertones. It has a palate of dense, concentrated dark fruit wrapped in lively oak spice; young tannins need some time to resolve. A serious wine that will age well. (88 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 Cabernet Franc, 5 Merlot)
Rating: TWO STARS 2004 Source Napa Heritage Sites Napa Valley Red Wine ($38) With 62 percent Merlot, this estate blend was aged in both French and Hungarian oak, 40 percent of which was new. A nose of shiitake mushroom, dusty black raspberry, and cooling mint notes also offers pepper and dry leaf. Nice spice with roasted cherry and pomegranate on palate; compact and a touch lean, with lingering, savory grip on the finish.
Rating: TWO STARS 2004 Source Napa Paramount Napa Valley Red Wine ($75) Vintners Bill Davies and Tom Gamble produce this Merlot-based wine with native yeasts and without filtration. Savory grainy notes underlie spicy peppercorn, plum, cassis and cherry cola aromas. Tobacco, roasted lamb and ripe cherry/dark plum flavors help mitigate the moderate tannins and alcohol. Savory notes echo on finish. (51 percent Merlot, 39 Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 Petit Verdot, 4 Cabernet Franc)
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2004 Vérité La Muse Sonoma County ($200) Vérité is French for the word "truth." La Muse - French vigneron Pierre Seillan's seventh vintage - is Merlot-based, with small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; aged 16 months in 100 percent new oak. Aromas of violet, sweet berry, red fruit, pencil lead and iron hints; huge dry tannic grip is offset almost enough with lifted blackberry bramble and cherry. Vérité is the flagship red of Jess Jackson's Jackson Family Farms, which uses only prime hillside vineyard fruit - experimenting with terroir, distinctive rootstock and clones - to create blends modeled after the Bordelais.
Rating: THREE STARS 2004 Vérité Le Désir Sonoma County ($200) Merlot plus an almost-equal portion of Cabernet Franc with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec in this blend shows generous, concentrated dark fruit, spice, coffee/caramel/mocha undertones with hints of damp earth and tar. It has a warm dusty plum, cassis and spice palate, and very fine-grained but big, defined tannins that will be even more approachable with time.
Lynne Char Bennett