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Thursday, April 18, 2013

#DLW13 - What's the Best Wine Grape for Maryland?

Last weekend I was fortunate to be included in a two day celebration of local wine, particularly, Maryland wine, at the 2013 Drink Local Wine Conference. During these two days of tours, tasting, and seminars; a common question was posed: "what is the best wine grape for Maryland?". That's a tough question considering the diversity of wine we sampled; from traditional Bordeaux varieties, to Chambourcin and Vidal, Chardonnay and Chardonel, Pinot Grigio and Noir, Albarino and Syrah, Sangiovese and Zinfandel, Gruner and Gewurztraminer and even Pinotage and Barbera. And that's not even listing blends.



During one seminar, Al Spoler, co-host of Cellar Notes, stated that Maryland should follow the road of Oregon (Pinot Noir), New Zealand (Sauvignon Blanc), and Virginia (Viognier) and hang its hat on Cabernet Franc.  And I tasted several tasty Cab Francs over the course of the weekend, in particular from Boordy Vineyards, Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, and Old Westminster Winery. Heck, Thanksgiving Farm even poured a white Cabernet Franc - made in the saignee style with all pigment removed. I would say Cabernet Franc has a future in the state.

However, during the next panel, Ed Boyce, from Black Ankle Vineyards, disagreed stressing that Maryland's best grape is a red blend, particularly when the state experiences unusual weather. Just look at 2011 when an "unscheduled irrigation event" occurred and most wineries experienced over 25 consecutive days of rain from late August through September. In these situations, Boyce believes the sub-par grapes can be blended and "declassified" into a lesser brand so that quantity becomes the problem, not quality. On the other hand, when conditions are more Californian, then the grapes can be blended into a reserve classification. And we tasted quite a few fabulous blends, starting with the standard portfolio from Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard (EVOE, Circe, Comus) and Black Ankle Vineyards (Crumbling Rock & Rolling Hills) to the Landmark Series from Boordy Vineyards (harvested from the Piedmont's South Mountain), the Thanksgiving Farm Meritage, and Big Cork Vineyards future wines. There's no doubt that red wine blends are solid offerings in the Free State. 

But there are other red varietal wines worth noting. Boordy and Black Ankle bother offer excellent Syrah and then there's the old champion Chambourcin. The Fiore Winery Reserve Chambourcin was the first Maryland wine I ever tasted - at least a dozen years ago - and today is still a favorite. I think I was one of a couple people who voted for it in the Twitter taste-off. Let's not forget the Knob Hall Winery Chambourcin and on two occasions our group was poured the Port of Leonardtown Winery Chambourcin and just as tasty as the Fiore.

Then there's the suggestions from Dr. Joe Fiola (UofM) who, for the past decade, has been assisting Maryland vineyards determine which grapes best suit their site. (Here's a brief video of his presentation.) For the the warmer southern region, where the diurnal fluctuation may reach a lackluster 15 degrees in the summer, he suggests southern Spanish and Italian varieties that are characterized by higher acids and tannins. One of these was the Slack Winery Barbera - a juicy, yet silky wine - as well as the Woodhall Wine Cellars Pinotage, harvested from the Schmidt Vineyard in the Eastern Shore, and more pinot than "tage" - very smooth. 

What about the  white wines?  Black Ankle wowed us with their Gruner Veltliner and Albarino. I look forward to trips to the beach to grab some Bordeleau Pinot Grigio or I'll just travel closer to home for some from SMV. Chardonnay is a stable in all Maryland regions as we tasted several very nice brands; and where that grape can't grow, Slack Winery proved that Chardonnel is a decent alternative. Port of Leonardtown also poured a refreshingly acidic dry Vidal and another favorites was the Gewurztraminer from Elk Run Vineyards.

So which grape may be the best wine grape for Maryland?  I don't know; maybe its this diversity which will strengthen and expand the industry. Or maybe its none of these grapes at all. We tasted several experimental wines being produced from Dr. Joe's research vineyards which included Colombard, Marsanne, Verdejo, Barbera, and most interesting a slew of hybrids from the former Soviet Union. These cold hardy grapes were actually planted in his southern Maryland vineyard and showed some promising results. Maybe the future of Maryland wine is SK 7753 or  SK 771099. Here's Dr. Joe leading us through a tasting of these wines.

Drink Local Wine Session IV: Tasting Maryland's Future

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