Syrah...or Shiraz? Pinot Gris...or Pinot Grigio? Meritage...or Ameritage? Champagne.....or sparkling wine?
Anyone with even a passing interest in wine may know the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine, but what about the others? The difference is minor for Syrah and Shiraz; it's a geography thing. Syrah is the red varietal originally from France, and that name is used in most other vineyard-rich countries, including Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand. Shiraz is the name for the same varietal adopted in Australia, as well as South Africa and Canada (a dry red from Canada? Yes, they exist). In the U.S., most wineries that offer Syrah stick with the original name, unless you happen to visit a winery owned by an Aussie or South African.
Meritage and Ameritage is a unique distinction. In order to be classified as a Meritage, a winery must join the Meritage Association, founded by a small group of Napa Valley winemakers who became increasingly frustrated by regulations stipulating wines contain at least 75% of a specific grape to be labeled as that varietal. So in 1988, when the Association was created, members sought to create a recognizable name for their high-quality blended wines. The name Meritage was selected. It is a special name, so special that wineries that do not belong to the Meritage Association are literally breaking the law if they call one of their red blends a Meritage. To get around that, some crafty wineries in the U.S. have added an "A" to the front of the name.
The varietals used by Virginia winemakers in Meritage/Ameritage are typically Cab Franc, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Malbec and Petit Verdot; percentages of the varietals used in each blend vary by winery. But Petit Verdot is usually on the low end (although that may change, as stand-alone Petit Verdot is becoming very popular in the Commonwealth). The underlying rule in creating a Meritage is that no varietal comprises more than 90% of the blend.
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are familiar names to Virginia winery hoppers, and have replaced the venerable Chardonnay as the to-go whites for many imbibers. Many wineries offer one or the other (and in one case, they offer both). The differences are subtle. Pinot Gris is the French variation, and Pinot Grigio is the Italian name. The grapes are red on the vine, but they are blended into distinctive whites. Pinot Gris tends to be a bit on the sweeter side, resembling an off dry Riesling in many cases. Pinot Grigio is usually drier, but in the end it depends on how the winemaker craft.
Where to try Meritage/Ameritage and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio in Virginia:
Sparkling wines and Syrah can be found in some wineries scattered throughout the state, but they are not very common. For purposes of this post, we'll focus on Meritage and Pinot Gris/Grigio, which are very common and are getting better with each growing year. Our favorites:
The name itself says it all--this is an Italian-themed winery. The family hails from the Old Country, so needless to say they call it Pinot Grigio here. Their grigio has soft citrus notes, is wonderfully dry, and goes quite well with both white sauce pasta dishes and cheese omelettes. Gadino Cellars is a blogmaster favorite, situated amongst meadows near the base of Skyline Drive in Sperryville.
Fox Meadow Winery
Care to compare Pinot Gris to Pinot Grigio? Fox Meadow is the place to do it. They've perfected both French style and Italian style; Gris is off dry, crisp, with notes of white delicious apples and nectarine. Grigio is bone dry, with notes of grapefruit and honeysuckle. Fox Meadow also offers a Meritage, a true Meritage; they are serious winemakers and have many awards (including a Governors Cup) to show for it.
A tad sweeter than the Pinot Gris at Fox Meadow, but with a creamy mouthfeel and notes of lemon. Pollak is another favorite of the authors, and also a proud member of the Meritage Association.
North Gate Vineyard
A relatively new winery in Loudoun County, North Gate makes a terrific Meritage, with a breakdown of varietals unique in that it brings out the Petit Verdot more, and lessens the content of Merlot. The result is something that even California wine enthusiasts are raving about. The formula: 47% Cabernet Franc, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Petit Verdot, and 6% Merlot.
A hearty Meritage is offered at Unicorn, a location more widely known for its whites and lighter reds. But the Meritage, with its formula of 40% Cab Sauv, 30% Cab Franc and 30% Merlot, is a fantastic steak wine.
An example of an "Ameritage," (although Veritas calls their blend "Vintner's Blend"), their blend is living proof that you don't need to be a member of the Meritage Association to produce a fine Meritage-esque :) wine.......their excellent, robust blend of 42% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, 25% Petit Verdot, and 16% Cabernet Sauv, boasts notes of licorace, chocolate, and raisins.
Three Fox Vineyards
Another winery with roots in the Old Country (Italy), their Pinot Grigio has notes of citrus and apricot, and makes a great pairing with pork and chicken dishes.