The Maryland Wine Association has clustered wineries into several wine trails with one, the Antietam Highlands Wine Trail, located not far from Washington DC -- just northwest of Frederick. The trail encompasses the South Mountain (2,140 feet high above the Potomac River), five national parks, 10 state parks, more than 30 museums, as well as the historic Antietam National Battlefield - sadly the bloodiest single day of battle in U.S. history. From Frederick head west on 340 towards Harpers Ferry to reach Big Cork Vineyards, Distillery Lane Ciderworks, as well as the Gathland State Park between the two. Stopping at the state park is highly recommended in order to hike parts of the Appalachian Trail and visit the War Correspondents Arch plus the George Alfred Townsend museum. Many may notice that the ruins and woods within the park were used in the Blair Witch Project.
Distillery Lane Ciderworks, producers of several extremely unique hard ciders. This seven year old operation lies on a historic farm that was used by Union soldiers as a camp site before Antietam. The Miller family purchased the property in 2001 and planted an apple orchard with cider, bitter, and eating apples. On my visit there were six ciders in the tasting room, a combination of sparkling, still, and barrel aged. The tasting started with the Celebration and Rio sparkling ciders, the first a dry and flavorful and the second aged in used A. Smith Bowman Distillery rye whiskey barrels. I bonded with this cider, the rye subtle but adding texture and slight spice. The Jefferson is their flagship still cider, made from the Newtown Pippin and named after our third President who preferred the Newton - aka the Albemarle Pippin. This is a solid cider, flavorful, depth, tart, and dry. The Kingston Black is another 100% varietal but with a touch of sugar that is balanced with the apple's natural acidity. The Scrumpy is very unique, an English cider that is cloudy, funky, and slightly effervescent. The tasting concluded with the Fireside, apple wine infused with spices. A very nice lineup. I left with the Rio and Scrumpy in bag.
Big Cork Vineyards is only a ten minute drive from Distillery Lane and its easy to site this impressive facility from the road. The winery opened several years ago after Randy Thompson hired Dave Collins first to scour a vineyard site and then lured him from Breaux Vineyards as the winemaker. From previous tastings, the wines - made from 100% estate fruit - have been delicious - although I have not experienced the breadth of their diverse portfolio. This day the whites were all 2015 vintages starting with the Chardonnay ($24) -- slightly buttery, but allowing the characteristic fruit flavor to shine. The Viognier ($22) was also as expected with floral, stone fruit, and velvety characters. On the off-dry side, the Vidal Blanc ($16) came across drier with its bright acids and the Russian Kiss ($22), a blend of three Russian varieties and Muscat, was fantastic. Moving to the 2014 vintages of red wines, the Meritage ($28) was solid, but the highlights were the Cabernet Franc ($36) and Nebbiolo ($42) - a Breaux favorite as well. The later sucked the mouth dry and with the amble acidity should lay down for quite sometime. The CF was full bodied, full of dark black fruit, some velvety texture, and noticeable tannins. Another that should age nicely. Finally, at the Winter Wine Festival I sampled their 100% estate grown raspberry Black Cap Port ($46) and it is all raspberries - with the brandy fortification taking a back seat.
We stayed so long at Big Cork I was unable to visit Orchid Cellar Meadery & Winery, which is located about 10 minutes northeast. The winery is the source for the best mead in the state - particularly the Hunter ($24). Next trip, as well as Mazzaroth Vineyard. And come April another cider house joins the trail with the opening of Willow Oaks Craft Cider and Wine. As always theCompass Winery, Brewery, Distillery Locator Mobile App will guide you to these destinations.