By Celia Strong
I know they say a bit of knowledge never hurt anyone. It’s just having to go through acquiring it that seems to be the problem. Some how, no matter how young or old we are, school in any form just is not appealing. That means that even when it’s good for us we don’t want to learn whatever it is. With wine, a bit of knowledge can be dangerous if you think you know more than you do. Or totally scary if you realize how much there can be to learn about it. This week, as usual, we’re going to have to learn a few things about our wine. At least, though, with wine we can drink while we learn. School at drinking age has got to be better than kids’ school. So — let’s study, and, sure, get a full glass. I’ve got mine right here.
To start with, let’s look at where our wine comes from: The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in Monterey County in California. Wines from the Monterey County AVA come from a larger area known as the Central Coast that runs 100 miles from north of Monterey Bay south to Paso Robles. The AVA includes part of Carmel Valley and the Salinas Valley. It includes five other, smaller, AVAs. (One of these we’ll come back to in a bit.)
About 40,000 acres of grapes are grown in the Monterey County AVA. Chardonnay is over 50% of that. The northern part of the AVA is better for Rieslings and Pinot Noirs, the southern part better for Bordeaux varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
The Santa Lucia Highlands is one of the five smaller AVAs located within the Monterey County AVA. Probably, it is the best known of the five. It is located in the Santa Lucia Mountains above the Salinas Valley. More than 2,300 acres of vines are planted here, some of them as high as 1,200 feet above sea level. The region has cool morning fog and breezes from the bay, and warm afternoons thanks to the southern exposure of the vineyards on the slopes.
Our last tidbit of knowledge for this week’s wine is the name of the category it is in. Meritage is a made-up name that is pronounced to rhyme with the word “heritage.” In 1988, a small group of Napa Valley vintners formed the Meritage Association. They were tired of and disagreed with the BATF rules for wine content. (The 75% minimum rule to label a wine for a grape variety was not always making for the best wines.). As vintners experimented with more varieties and percentages, they saw the need for a recognizable name for their wines. Being a group of Napa wine makers, where Cabernet Sauvignon was then, and still is, the king, their blends became Bordeaux-style wines.
In 1988, the association held a contest to name themselves and their wines. The winner was “Meritage,” a combination of the words “merit” and “heritage.” Only members of the association were allowed to use the name “Meritage” on their wines and, by 1999, they had 22 members. In 2003, they were up to over 100 members; in May 2009, they changed their name from Meritage Association to Meritage Alliance; and by August 2009, they had more than 250 members.
Members of the Alliance agree to the terms for using the name “Meritage” on their wines. A red Meritage must be made at least two of the six grapes that are allowed — the Bordeaux five plus Carmenere that was also, historically, grown in Bordeaux. No one variety can be more than 90% of the blend. Originally, a Meritage wine also had to be one of the best, and more expensive, that the winery made. White Meritage wines for Alliance members can be made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle (another Bordeaux variety). Again, no grape can exceed 90% of the blend. There is still the recommendation that a Meritage wine be the winery’s most expensive blend and that production is limited to no more than 25,000 cases. Alliance members are not limited to Napa Valley any more either. (Good thing or all the info about Monterey AVA wouldn’t make sense!)
And, now, we get to this week’s wine. But, pause a second to refill our glass if you like. I did. In the mid-1970’s, Nicky (Nicolaus) Hahn and his wife, Gaby, bought two vineyard ranches in the Santa Lucia Highlands. They produced their first wine in 1980 under the Smith and Hook label. The Hahn Estate label followed their early success in 1991. This new brand was created to produce supple, accessible and attractively priced wines. As good as Smith and Hook was, like other Napa wines it was more expensive and needed some aging to be more appealing to more wine fans. The Hahns thought that the soil and climate conditions in the Santa Lucia Highlands could give them the grapes to do this. Wind and fog interact with solar radiation so the grapes’ ripening is slowed down — two months longer here. This gives the grapes more varietal intensity, flavor, depth and structure. All together, we get exceptional wines. The name “Hahn” means “rooster” in German and is now the emblem on all Hahn wine bottles as a tribute to their European heritage.
Hahn Meritage is a great red wine. It is made from 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 9% Malbec and 8% Petit Verdot. Neutral and French oak barrels are used to age it. And blah, blah. See, learning does get old! It’s the aromas and flavors and textures that make it so good. That’s just part of where they come from.
Raspberry, blueberry and vanilla aromas roll out of your glass with this wine. The flavors are all over the place — currant, black cherry, caramel, toasty oak, baking spice and tobacco all come to you. The Cab gives it body, the Malbec and Petit Verdot make it rich and deep and concentrated, the Cabernet Franc and Merlot keep it balanced. Now you know why the original Meritage Association members worked so hard to get this category of wine going. And the Hahn Meritage? With their Rooster? Yikes! Time to fill my glass a bit more. But at $14.99, that’s easy. Enjoy!