By Celia Strong
Sometimes one thing just makes you think of something else. Not even really connected but somehow, in your head, there is some shining connection that makes complete sense. Fortunately, with wine in the equation, some of those connections are more fun and more clear than they might be otherwise. This week’s wine has connected me to the old brain teaser about the person walking to Saint Ives:
“As I was walking to Saint Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks and wives — how many were walking to Saint Ives?”
The answer is “one,” and we have one wine to look at this week. A red blend from California.
First, I suppose, we have to look at the world of blends in California wines. We very loosely use the term “Meritage” to categorize American blends. Officially, the name “Meritage” applies only to blends made from the Bordeaux grape varieties. The Meritage Association was founded in 1988 by a group of Napa Valley vintners. They were frustrated with the wine label laws established by the BATF for American wines, in particular the law saying they had to have 75 percent of a grape in a wine to name the wine for that variety.
As blending became more popular with these vintners, and as the wines they made with less than 75 percent of one variety were so good and so well received, an acceptable option became necessary. This led the newly formed association to run a contest to create a proprietary name for the category of blended wines. “Meritage” — a combination of “merit” and “heritage” — won, and the winner got two bottles per year of the Meritages made for 10 years by each member of the association. Despite how few members there were in the original association in 1988, by 1999 there were 22 members and, by 2009, there were more than 250.
Membership in the Meritage Alliance, as it is now called, requires that the members make their blended wines according to certain guidelines. These wines can include only the Bordeaux varieties, red or white, can not be more than ninety percent of any one grape, can not exceed more than twenty-five thousand cases per vintage (exclusivity keeps them higher priced), and, not official, but it is strongly recommended that the Meritage of a winery is their best wine, period.
Having said all of that, though, we all know there are lots of blended wines that are not expensive, more universally available than a mere 25,000 cases would be, and use all kinds of different grapes, traditional Bordeaux or not. And thank goodness! Some of these blended wines are favorites for many of us. Personally, I like blended wines because of the added flavors and textures in these wines. Compare a one-or-two-grape wine to a hot dog steamed and in a bun. Then, think of a blend as a hot dog grilled with chili, cheese, onions, mustard — the works. Both good, but which one made you hungrier? Our mouths are made to appreciate more than one flavor and texture. I like to help my mouth stay happy, and drinking wine blends does the job. Also, I find with less expensive wines, blends can taste more expensive than they actually are. That keeps the budget happy too.
So, this week’s wine is Seven Daughters Red Blend. Not an official Meritage, but a blend of seven grape varieties. (Hence, the kits, cats, sacks and wives that’s been bouncing around in my head.). Interestingly, one of the seven grapes is one we almost never see. The seven, in order of most to least are Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon. And, what is Alicante Bouschet? This is one of the rare grape varieties that actually has colored juice. Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, all the varieties we think of, normally have white juice and their wines’ colors come from contact with the grape skins. There are other grapes with colored pulp, “teinturier,” most of them not “vitis vinifera” that we’re used to drinking. Alicante Bouschet was created in 1866, by Henri Bouschet. It is a cross between Petit Bouschet, created by Henri’s father, and Grenache. The new variety had deep color, high yields and easy maintenance when growing. Unlike other grapes, this variety has a two-color leaf on its vine, green with patches of purple. In France and the rest of Europe, it was popular because of its hardiness after the Phylloxera infestation of their vineyards in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the United States, Alicante Bouschet was popular during Prohibition. In the Central Valley, in California, growers found that its color was so deep and the pulp so juicy that wine could be made even from the fourth pressing of these grapes. Mmmm, good. And, this grape’s thick skin made it possible to ship it from the West Coast to the East Coast. In 1928, 225 train cars of this grape were sold at auction in New York’s Pennsylvania Station to one buyer and used to make more than two million gallons of wine. There are pockets of this grape still grown, small but still there, around the world.
Seven Daughters Red is a wine created to match the American lifestyle. Free spirited and fun loving. Unlike Europe, where most of their wines developed with their foods as pairs. This region’s wines with the same region’s foods. (And, it works for them, really, really well.) And look how many of us enjoy traveling to explore these pairings.
In California, though, a group of wine makers got together in the early 2000’s to talk about pairings, food-wise, with their wines. One free spirit claimed he thought wine paired best with laughter. (Yikes! Did that discussion take a sharp turn?) But, now, here we are with one of their results. A great new wine. A red blend that is balanced, complex and layered, dry, fruity, medium-bodied, spicy with berry and vanilla and lavender flavors. Each variety giving its own little voice to the whole wine.
And, this is just a $14 wine? But, no! Try $6.97. A new deal for all of us. Kits, cats, sacks and wives, how many are going to Saint Ives? Don’t care. I have Seven Daughters Red. Enjoy.
By Celia Strong