Late this summer there were at least two terrific "Winemaker" dinners at Ravines Wine Cellars overlooking Keuka Lake --- Chasing Pinot: In Search of the Perfect Pinot Noir and Meritage: The Art of Blending.
"Meritage"? Is that another one of those snooty French terms? Actually, meritage is an American neologism that combines the words "merit" and "heritage" and is pronounced like the latter. In 1988 a group of American vintners formed an association that would reflect a winemaking tradition in Bordeaux, France: to make blends from wines grown in that region.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two grape varieties that go into these blends. Most American consumers know these varieties quite well. Other varieties that can be used include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec for the red wines, and Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion and Sauvignon Vert for white wine.
So why blend? You'd think that wines made from single varieties are better than a hodge-podge of different grapes. But in the case of a Meritage, the best characteristics of each grape variety are blended together to create something new and different, and often extremely sophisticated.
When Peter Bell, the winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards (www.foxrunvineyards.com), makes a Meritage, he begins with samples from as many as 80 barrels. These barrels contain different versions of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Sometimes the grapes in those barrels may be from different vineyards, therefore, from different soils, which also can impart different flavors. Other barrels may have been toasted differently, which in turn produces a varying amount of carmelization, and so on.
Bell will smell and taste all the samples and, eventually, come up with the ones he feels work best together to produce an outstanding and unique wine. For this reason, a Meritage usually is produced in small quantities so as to insure its quality.
The Meritage Association expects no less from wines given that designation. To be able to put Meritage on a wine label, the winery has to pay a $1.00 per case fee, not to exceed $500. (If you want to know more about the strict guidelines of the association, you can visit their web site at www.meritagewine.org.) Of course, there are exceptional blends that don't exactly follow the guidelines but then they can't be designated as Meritage, which is becoming increasingly known as a sign of quality.
Although most Meritage comes from California, you can find wines from Australia, Canada, and a few other places in the United States that are registered members. There are 12 wineries in Finger Lakes region that are members. Among them are Ravines Wine Cellars (www.ravineswinecellers.com) and Fox Run Vineyards where Morten Hallgren and Peter Bell, respectively, produce some excellent Meritage.
In addition, Richard Figiel of Silver Thread Vineyards (www.silverthreadwine.com) makes a wine he calls Black Bird, which is essentially a Meritage-style wine without the official designation. His carefully made organic 2003 Black Bird from is 50 percent Cabernet Franc and 25 percent each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
And Doug Miles of Miles Wine Cellars (www.mileswinecellers.com) makes a blend he calls Milestone. It is a 50-50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This wine is only made in years when the weather produces the best possible grapes, so don't miss what's left of the 2001. The new winery at Belhurst Castle (www.belhurstcastle.com) also makes a blend called Trilogy, which is another traditional Bordeaux blend --- it's just not called Meritage.
Sometimes winemakers will take the art of blending into non-traditional directions. Quite often, in the right hands of certain winemakers, the results are outstanding. Rob Thomas, winemaker and owner of Shalestone Vineyards (www.shalestonevineyards.com) makes a wine he calls Synergy, which is a blend that contains an equal amount of Cabernet Franc and Syrah (known as Shiraz in Australia).
Since all of these wines require a lot of extra care in the making, they can be somewhat pricey. Most run in the range of $20 and $40. But wines from Bordeaux and California Meritage can run one anywhere from $80 to $200.
These are special occasion wines and can be dazzling expressions of the combination of tradition with the uniqueness of the individual winemakers.
Finger Lakes winery events
Acoustic Newt Wednesdays through October. Red Newt Cellars, 3675 Tichenor Rd, Hector, 7-9 p.m. 607-546-4100, www.rednewt.com
Autumn Wine Makers Dinner Nov 12. Sheldrake Point Vineyard & Café, 7448 County Road 153, Ovid, 5:15 p.m. $65. 866-743-5372, www.sheldrakepoint.com
Barrel Tasting and Polka Party Nov 12-13. Thirsty Owl Wine Company, 6799 Elm Beach Rd, Ovid. 866-869-5805, www.thirstyowl.com
Basket Creations Nov 19-Dec 23. Six Mile Creek Vineyard, 1551 Slaterville Rd, Route 79 East, Ithaca. 800-260-0612, www.sixmilecreek.com
Bon Vivant Celebration Nov 13. Hosmer Winery, 6999 State Route 89, Ovid, 12-4 p.m. 888-467-9463, www.hosmerwinery.com
Champagne & Dessert Wine Festival Nov 5-6. Swedish Hill Vineyard, 4565 Route 414, Romulus, 12-5 p.m. 888-549-9463, www.swedishhill.com
Chestnut Festival Oct 29. Goose Watch Winery, 5480 Rte 89, Romulus, 12-5 p.m. 315-549-2599, www.goosewatch.com
Chocolate and Red Wine Sept 24. McGregor Vineyard Winery, Dundee, 5503 Dutch St, Dundee, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 800-272-0192, www.mcgregorwinery.com
Chocolate and Red Wine Sept 24-Sept 25. Ravines Wine Cellars, 14630 State Route 54, Keuka Village, 607-292-7007, www.ravineswinecellars.com
Cider for Grownups Oct 29-30. Bellwether Hard Cider, 9070 Route 89, Trumansburg, 888-862-4337, www.cidery.com
Experience the Crush! Oct 1. Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery, 6800 Route 89, Elm Beach, Ovid, 2:30 p.m. 800-598-9463, www.cayugaridgewinery.com
Fall Winemaker's Dinner Nov 12. Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, 9224 Route 414, Lodi. 607-582-6011, www.lamoreauxwine.com
14th Annual Deck the Halls Holiday Event Nov 19-20. Seneca Lake Wine Trail. 877-536-2717, www.senecalakewine.com
Frankenstein and Wine Oct 29. Americana Vineyards, 4367 East Covert Rd, Interlaken, 607-387-6801, www.americanavineyards.com
Harvest Dinner Oct 7. Red Newt Cellars, 3675 Tichenor Rd, Hector. 607-546-4100, www.rednewt.com
Harvest Festival Sept 24-25. Six Mile Creek Vineyard, 1551 Slaterville Rd, Rte 79 East, Ithaca. 607-272-9463, 800-260-0612, www.sixmilecreek.com
Harvest Festival Oct 8-9. King Ferry Winery, 658 Lake Rd, King Ferry. 800-439-5271, www.treleavenwines.com
Hunt Country Gourmet Harvest Festival Oct 1-2. Hunt Country Vineyards, 4021 Italy Hill Rd, Branchport. 800-946-3289, www.huntcountryvineyards.com
Italian Wine Makers Dinner Nov 6. Long Point Winery, 1485 Lake Rd, Aurora, 1-4:30 p.m. 315-364-6990, www.longpointwinery.com
Keuka Holidays Nov 12-13. Keuka Lake Wine Trail. 800-440-4898, www.keukawinetrail.com
Meritage & Mozart Nov 12-13. Ravines Wine Cellars, 14630 State Route 54, Keuka Village, 12-5 p.m. 607-292-7007, www.ravineswinecellars.com
2nd Annual Harvest Festival Oct 23. Buttonwood Grove Winery, 5986 State Route 89, Romulus. 607-869-9760, www.buttonwoodgrove.com
Summer, Sip and Savor Sept 24-25. Eastside Keuka Lake Wineries. 800-440-4898, www.keukawinetrail.com
Tunes in the Tent Sundays in October. Heron Hill Winery, 9301 County Route 76, Hammondsport, 1-5 p.m. 800-441-4241 ext 15, www.heronhill.com
Wine Country Harvest Celebration Sept 24-25. Keuka Overlook Wine Cellars, 5777 Old Bath/Gardner Rd, Dundee. 607-292-6877, www.keukaoverlook.com