August 16 2010
Trend watching in the wine world is something of a sport as Sommeliers, writers and pundits observe, parse, distill and then explain what is happening in the wine zeitgeist as the stories develop at the micro-trend level. Reporting on the ripple in the pond, something that can penetrate the wine lover’s consciousness over the coming years as the story grows larger, influencers act as an agent for isolating and highlighting what is next.
Sometimes this subtle focus from influencer’s and wordsmiths is noticed, other times not so much (witness: Riesling’s status as the next big thing for the last decade, consumers never quite receiving the memo). Yet, this never-ending exploration of what’s new and interesting ends up being a self-fueling machine that fosters and builds intriguing storylines until the ideas become acknowledged reality, or are replaced by the new, new thing.
An example in the realm of wine (and an emerging trend to pay attention to) is the contrast between declining Bordeaux wine sales here in the states at the same time that Old World-styled California wines grow in mindshare and sales. I call it the “Nü California” style – fruit forward, food-friendly, and dimensionally blended wines with a component of place evident.
Not only is there a restrained “Old World-ish” style of California wine taking shape, but there are also specific nods that vintners are making to Left and Right Bank-style blends from Bordeaux. Left Bank-style blends lead with Cabernet and Right Bank-style blends lead with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc.
What we are seeing in a post-Sideways world, related to Right Bank-style wines, are an increase in blends that lead with the formerly forsaken Merlot along with Cab Franc (sometimes taking center stage), despite long ago being given a Scarlet Letter as a, “blending varietal.”
Of course, emerging trends do not occur in a vacuum. Sometimes, they are given lift.
The Meritage Alliance has been working to grow mindshare and influence regarding Bordeaux-style blends since 1988.
Started by a group of winemakers who wanted to acknowledge the vintners art form of blending, paying homage to Bordeaux-style blends, yet creating a new name to be respectful of names and origins, Meritage, a made up combination of the words “merit” and “heritage,” has become wildly popular, joining the English lexicon in ways not normally associated with marketing-oriented naming conventions.
In an interview with Bill Smart, Director of Communications for Dry Creek Vineyard (DCV) and a marketing contributor to The Meritage Alliance helmed on a volunteer basis by Kim Stare Wallace of DCV, he noted:
“(We’d) like to have (wineries) use the term Meritage, whether it’s on their label or not to describe their blend. Using the word Bordeaux to describe these wines is incorrect in my opinion. Sure, the wines incorporate the Bordeaux varieties; however, that is where our similarities with Bordeaux end. We are California wineries, producing wines in our style, to our taste, using the noble Bordeaux variety grapes. In my opinion, the correct name for these wines is Meritage blends or Meritage-style blends.”
With firsthand experience with the Mariner, a consistently fabulous Left Bank-style Meritage blend from DCV, Smart knows that which he speaks …
The Meritage Alliance boasts 220 members in the organization. In 2011, they are poised to launch a consumer-oriented tasting in San Francisco similar to ZAP and the Family Winemakers of California tastings, increasing awareness of Bordeaux-styled California blends as a “Meritage.”
Of course, an emerging trend must have an upstart hero, as well. Within the scope of growing awareness of Meritage blends and the niche of Left and Right Bank-styled wines, a pre-launch wine company called Virage is focusing on Right Bank-styled Nü Californian wines.
Named for the French word meaning a “turn in the road,” that’s exactly what has happened as a former investment banker and assistant to Karen MacNeil, Emily Richer, has swerved right and teamed with winemaker Aaron Pott of Quintessa and Blackbird fame.
Focused on the cooler climate growing areas of Napa Valley, Virage will highlight blends based predominantly on Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
The Virage blend won’t be released until the fall of this year. I received an early, unlabeled bottling from Richer. If early tastings hold true, you’ll be hearing a lot about this upstart. Priced with a value sensibility at $45 a bottle with initial production slated at 900 cases and focused on re-shaping the perception of Napa as a hot weather Cabernet Sauvignon playground, Virage is poised to be a breakout star of 2010.
In addition, unbelievably, the Virage matches up with Pott’ bold quote in the San Francisco Chronicle when he told writer Jon Bonné that, “The best expressions of Cabernet Franc are much more interesting than the best expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon.” The Virage, offering layer upon layer of nuance, is a tapestry compared to a Napa Cabs afghan of primary flavors.
Pay attention to Meritage blends and Left and Right Bank styles coming from California. Below are reviews of the Virage and a Left Bank-styled wine from Napa compatriot Beaucanon.
Illustration #1 and #2 credits: Christophe Vorlet and copyright holder(s)
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