By Celia Strong
With all the new wines that are introduced every week, we have compiled quite the pile of information about wines. Most of the time, that information relates specifically to the featured wine of the week. But this week, I’m thinking we can discuss some more general topics that we can apply not only to this week’s one wine, but to many more wines to come.
The idea for our discussion came to me because our wine is a blend from California. As we’ve looked at other wines, we’ve learned than in some places blends are normal — not only normal, but mandatory. European countries have wine laws that dictate what varieties grow where and what wines they make and what the wines are called. Some of these laws determine minimum or maximum percentages of grapes, for example Chianti from Tuscany, Rioja from Spain, red and white Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône from France.
In California, we’ve talked about blends many times, and a long time ago, about the name “Meritage” that was “invented” for higher priced, special blends using Bordeaux varieties only. Originally, this name and idea was limited to Napa, but now the Meritage Alliance has more than 250 members, not all just in California. While “official” Meritage wines are higher priced and limited in the grapes that can be used to make them, the idea of better wines being possible when made with an assortment of grapes took hold and grew and grew. Now, a majority of wineries in California make at least one blended wine. Since not all these blends qualify as “official” Meritage wines, we are going to look at the label regulations that let us know what’s in a wine bottle.
Wine labels are the way we get to know as much as we can before tasting a wine. Label laws (and we’re talking California here) help inform the consumer what is inside the bottle. All wine labels have to show the brand name — the winery name. The exact detail here means the party responsible for the bottling, mostly, that is a winery. Vintage dating on the label means a minimum of 85 percent of the grapes had to be harvested in the year marked. Alcohol content has to be shown all labels as well as the volume of wine in each bottle. “Contains sulfates” is a mandatory marking if 10 parts per million or greater are present. Health warning statements are mandatory. And, various phrases, almost always fine print on the back label, tell us how much control the bottler had in the whole process of getting wine into his bottle — growing the grapes, making the wine, aging the wine, bottling the wine, etc.
Finally, what type of wine it is has to be on the label. Besides the brand name, this is probably the most important piece of information. In the United States, our wines are mostly labeled for the grape variety in them. This is called a “varietal” wine. The current legal minimum is 75 percent of one grape to name the wine for that grape. A “Cabernet” has to be at least 75 percent Cab. The extra 25 percent can be Cabernet, or some of it, some of whatever else is needed, according to the winemaker, to make the wine taste better, an allowance for style and pricing.
While that may seem like an easy formula, it can get more complex. A “California” Cab has to be 100 percent California grown grapes — no matter what percentages of different varieties. From smaller than a state designation, like counties (Napa Valley Cab), AVAs (Spring Mountain District Cab), specific vineyards (Three Palms Vineyard Cab), more precise rules with more restrictions come into play. All of this is done to help us know what we are buying.
Backing up a bit, we have to look at what happens if a winemaker likes the wine he is making better if it is not falling into these label laws. Like, it tastes better with 74 percent Cabernet and some other grapes. And, further, if the wine does not fall into the guidelines of the Meritage Alliance. The winemaker has a blend, obviously, and is allowed to call it whatever he chooses. Hence, some of the names we have on some of our favorite wines — The Prisoner, Claret, Red Splash, Rouge, and on and on. All different blends of different grapes at different prices. We’re the lucky ones, though, because we get a much wider assortment of wines to choose from — one for every single whatever.
All of which gets us to this week’s wine: Buehler Vineyards Bon Marché. Buehler is a Napa Valley winery, which is why I used Napa references. The winery was founded by John Buehler, Sr. His retirement was buying a hillside Napa property, and having his son, John, Jr., get into grape growing with him. In 1978, Buehler hand crushed his grapes and produced his first 700 cases of wine. Good results with that vintage led to increased production, until 1982, when he hired Heidi Barrett as winemaker. Heidi became a superstar in Napa winemaking and moved on in 1988, but Buehler was firmly established with a superb reputation. Today, Buehler’s vineyards include 30-year-old Cabernet vines, 30-year-old Zinfandel vines, and Russian River (Sonoma) Chardonnay vines.
Since this week’s wine is a blend, you’ve got to really love the name they chose for it: Bon Marché, a French phrase. “Bon” is French for “good” and “marché” means “market.” These two words together take on a new meaning, not literally “good market,” but “great deal,” meaning a deal for us!
This wine is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Malbec. The exact percentages of each are not known, for us anyhow. We are allowed to know them from largest percentage to smallest percentage, but that’s all. Really, I’m not sure knowing the exact numbers will change how much I like this wine.
Bon Marché is aged in American and French oak barrels, which is good to know because that explains the toasty vanilla flavors. The textures are juicy and mouth-filling. Dark red and black fruits bounce out at you — cherries, blackberries, plums, black currants. And mocha and cocoa and vanilla and cinnamon and, if you taste really, really hard, a little bit of black licorice. Which we all know I love!
This new wine is very limited in South Carolina and it is a perfect name for what it is — a great deal in an everyday red wine at only $11.99. A great find for the coming months of grilling and salads and burgers and poultry and seafood and beef and pizza and cheeses and evenings on the docks and days on the boats.