Thanks to a friend with refined and expensive tastes, this weekend we got the chance to share a bottle of 2000 vintage Bordeaux from the renowned village of Margaux, source of some of the most sought-after wines in the world. Since we rarely splurge on expensive wine, it was a nice reminder of how much we appreciate the French tradition of blending varietals, which can produce distinctive wine arguably greater than the sum of its parts.
Not all wine drinkers appreciate the earthy notes characteristic of so many prized French wines, however. But there are plenty of Bordeaux-inspired New World blends from the U.S., Australia and South America that offer similar character (with less funk), and some even at bargain prices. In fact, in 1988, a small group of Napa Valley winemakers came together to create a “brand” for Bordeaux-style red and white wines, which don’t qualify for varietal labeling under California law. Said to be a combination of the words merit and heritage, the term “Meritage” was coined to identify wines blended from the traditional Bordeaux varietals.
Started by a small group that included David Stare of Dry Creek Vineyard, Chip Lyeth of Lyeth Vineyards, Richard Graf of Chalone Vineyards, Agustin Hunneus, then with Franciscan Estates, Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino Winery, Jason Pahlmeyer of Pahlmeyer and Julie Garvey of Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards, the Meritage Alliance (formerly the Meritage Association) now has more than 260 winery members from 22 states as well as California, plus Canada, Israel, Argentina, Mexico, France and Australia.
In keeping with their inspiration – the classic Bordeaux blends – wines labeled “Meritage” are typically high-end bottles that cost $30 to $50 and often reach triple digits. [We recently had the opportunity to taste the 2006 Franciscan – Magnificat Meritage Napa Valley with winemaker Jay Turnipseed and thought it tasted every bit as luxurious as its $48-a-bottle price. Then again, we weren’t paying for it.]
But one of the pioneers of Napa Meritage, Lyeth Vineyards, produces a value blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec that’s on sale locally for about $10 a bottle. And its big brother, Lyeth Meritage, is widely available for only $4 to $8 more.
The newest vintage of the proprietary blend, Fleur de Lyeth 2009, is on sale for $9.99 at Pearson’s Wine & Spirits in Glover Park, and the 2008 has been on sale for $10.99 at Cleveland Park Wine & Spirits.
- Compare prices nationwide and find these wines online or at a wine shop near you.
The professional critics haven’t reviewed the 2009 Fleur de Lyeth, but Julie Brady, writing on the A Bottle A Night blog raves about it, concluding that it would be her wine of choice to accompany her last meal, should she land on Death Row.
“I definitely didn’t taste any vanilla, plum, tannins, or anything else that people with refined palates can supposedly detect in wine,” she writes, “but what I did taste was pure, red, winey deliciousness. I like wine that has a bite, and this one bit me with every sip.”
For a few dollars more, the flagship Lyeth Sonoma County Meritage may appeal more to wine drinkers looking for something closer to classic Bordeaux. A blend of 45 percent cabernet with 28 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet franc and just a splash of petit verdot, the 2007 Lyeth Meritage is priced at $13.99 at Total Wine stores throughout Virginia and just $1 more at their sister stores in Maryland, Corridor Wine & Spirits in Laurel and Beltway Fine Wine in Towson.
In a column we linked to last year in our Thanksgiving column, New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov praised it as “Fresh and energetic with flavors of dark fruit and earth.” The Bordeaux-style blend was the favorite red among the 10 crowd pleasing Thanksgiving wines the Dining section’s team assembled for its annual preholiday road test. (The Lyeth was brought to the party by Times restaurant critic Florence Fabricant.)
“Florence’s choice, the 2007 Lyeth meritage, a Bordeaux-style blend, was our favorite red — fresh, fruity and earthy, and, I have to admit, the last thing I would have expected of cabernet sauvignon and merlot,” Asimov wrote in November.
The 2007 is still on some store shelves, though you might find the current 2008 vintage showing up in high-volume wine stores like Total, Corridor and Beltway. You’ll also find some of Lyeth’s single varietal wines, primarily Lyeth’s L de Lyeth Sonoma Cabernet and L de Lyeth Sonoma Merlot, which like the Fleur de Lyeth can be found for $10 or less. See the slideshow for wines, vintages and prices for Lyeth wines all over town.
Lyeth Estates may be an exception that proves the rule that California can’t compete on value with Spain, southern France or South America. As always, if you see one of these wines well priced at a shop near you, you should pick up a bottle and judge for yourself.
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