Q&A: What’s A Meritage – And What’s This Two-Buck Chuck?

What’s a Meritage?

Well, it’s a blend – either white OR red (most people think it’s red only, and that’s wrong) – that’s supposed to be similar in style to the great wines of Bordeaux.

Meritage is pronounced to rhyme with “heritage” although I often say it the wrong, French way myself (Mare-it-tahj) out of habit. The name came from a consumer contest in the late 1980s to promote these  blends, which come mainly but not exclusively from California.

Wineries that put “Meritage” on the label have to pay a fee per case to the Meritage Alliance, and those wines must be made from specific grapes. Because of that, a lot of wineries just blend their grapes and create so-called proprietary wines, which they often give clever (or not-so-clever) names. Insignia from Joseph Phelps is probably the best-known proprietary California wines…and one of the most expensive and exclusive.

Red Meritages must have two or more of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenere, and no one variety can be more than 90 percent of the blend.  White Meritage is made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Vert and also must follow the 90% rule.

There are some very good Meritages out there, but few of them have resemble their French cousins. If you want a Bordeaux, drink one.

Whats in Two-Buck Chuck?  How can it be this cheap?

Charles Shaw wines, known collectively as “Two-Buck Chuck,” are the best-known of bottled commercial bulk wines. They’re really cheap for some very simple reasons: they come from extremely high-yield vineyards. The grapes are machine harvested and rarely if ever sorted for quality. They’re fermented in huge quantities and the resulting wine is pushed into the market with little or no aging and pretty much no marketing.

The second major source of bulk wine is actually high-end wineries. How’s that? Well, more frequently than you might imagine, something happens at a winery that makes a batch of wine unsuitable for bottling under its own “prestige” label – inferior grapes from a late-season rain, a bad fermentation, or a wine that just doesn’t meet the winemaker’s standards. But the wine is still good enough to be sold on the bulk market, and doing that helps wineries recover some of their costs.  So they find a company that bottles and sells private-label wine, and voila.

So what’s wrong with this?  Most of the time, nothing at all. The only big problem when buying bulk wine, sometimes for as little as $3-4 a bottle, is that the quality and taste can be wildly inconsistent. I’ve heard about, but never seen, people opening a bottle from a case of bulk wine in the parking lot of one of those warehouse stores, and if it’s drinkable, running back in to buy the rest of the case.  But I have seen people at home opening bottle after bottle of bulk wine from a case, and finding each and every bottle just awful.  So it’s sometimes a gamble, but in the days of strict quality control and high production standards, the whole case disaster is rare.

Bulk wine in my view is a step above so-called jug wines that often have names like “Hearty Burgundy” but they aren’t made from French-grown Pinot Noir, and “Chablis” – that ain’t made from French Chardonnay.  These I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole unless I was broke or in college.

And I’m not.