Winter Wine Festival: A Survey of Maryland Wine

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As I wrote last month, Maryland is capable of producing world class wine; the Baker family at Old Westminster proved that to me. Outside of Old Westminster and Black Ankle, the other Maryland winery I’d tried, however, I wasn’t sure how other Maryland wineries fared. Thursday night I had the opportunity to find out at the Maryland Wineries Association’s Winter Wine Festival in Baltimore. Set up in the B&O Railroad Museum, wineries from around the state poured their sparkling, white, red and dessert wines to a nice crowd eager to consume. I went in with an open mind and walked away pleasantly surprised with a few of the wines I tried.

Several of the wineries’ produced wines of quality and intrigue that I can see breaking into national distribution. I therefore left optimistic about the trajectory of the industry in general because the standouts are clear proof that with a thoughtful approach centered around finding the most appropriate land, varietals and techniques, high quality wine can come from the state. However, most wineries offered wines that fell into several categories that don’t bode well for significant market expansion or the state’s reputation, categories like generally poor quality, insufficient character and flawed. These are largely the result of insufficient attention, or a lack of interest in, finding the right place to grow the right thing in the right way. Put another way, many of these wines were driven by the wineries’ desire to produce a specific product rather than determining the best product they are capable of delivering, and then pursuing that.

An example of a winery going about things the right way is Crow Vineyard and Winery. Crow produces sparkling and still vidal blanc, not the sexiest variety or one known for complexity or intrigue. Rather, it’s known more for its flabby and cloying body and simple tropical fruits, and thought of more as a sweet delivery device of alcohol to housewives (no disrespect intended to housewives) than a serious wine. Therefore, the decision to showcase it at a wine festival might be taken as a negative sign of the seriousness of the winery. As it turns out, though, they produce it because it grows well on their land and their winemaker knows how to get the best out of it. The still version was the white wine of the night for me, the only vidal blanc I’ve had that I’d spend my own money on, and the only vidal blanc I plan to have more than once. It had flavors like dandelion that balanced the peach and white pepper, and it had a mean streaks of salty acid and slate that cut through the tiny bit of sweetness and kept the wine lean. The sparkling version was good as well.

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Big Cork is another producer with promise, though for perhaps opposite reason of Crow. Their 2015 viognier was a proud counter argument against people like me who don’t believe in the case for viognier in the Mid-Atlantic region. It’s a difficult grape to grow because the skin is thin, the clusters are tight and it needs warmth to adequately ripen. This part of the country has volatile weather and a lot of rain, which means viognier can easily go bad on the vine (often from rot) before it even gets to the point, in the Mid-Atlantic, of not adequately ripening. While I’d never risk planting viognier at my hypothetical winery because year-in, year-out it’s inconsistent, Big Cork is all-in and the 2015 shows why. While it had a bit of volatile acidity on the nose, it blew off and revealed a lean body of sweet mango, melon, vanilla curd, white pepper and a really cool passion fruit feature. The acid was good and the wine wasn’t flabby at all, an unfortunately common feature of many viogniers. Big Cork has a mighty challenge to produce a good viognier consistently from vintage to vintage in Maryland, but they’ve clearly developed some know-how with this grape. What they still have to prove, however, is that they can make worthy viognier in the off years as well.

For many of the red wines I wrote lines like “good but not great” or “nice Earth but insufficient fruit.” Knob Hall’s 2013 petit verdot was one of those on the verge. They made the smart decision in holding the wine an extra year prior to release. It had good weight and acid, nice smoked pepper beef jerky and raspberry, but on the whole it was just a bit singular as cold climate petit verdot can be. Similarly, Thanksgiving Farm’s 2012 Reserve Meritage showed its age well with robust, drying tannins and saline to go with hickory smoke and peppered salmon jerky on the nose and palate. It was a unique and intriguing profile but it needed some fruit to broaden the flavor spectrum and body. Both of these demonstrate the promise of Maryland but also the challenge of being able to achieve adequate ripening in red grapes. There are tricks that can be played in the winery to help with this, but that’s a difficult decision that a lot of winemakers don’t make because it’s an act of distorting “nature’s intent,” if you will, in a way that paves over the wine’s uniqueness.

The final wine I want to highlight is Layton’s Chance 2014 Norton Reserve. Like Crow’s decision to feature vidal blanc, Layton’s Chance Norton is a statement about the importance finding the right grape for the land and then making it well. Norton is not an esteemed grape, and frankly even though it’s quite at home in the Mid-Atlantic most producers of it still don’t do it particularly well. Too often it’s a tannic mess of high alcohol and sweet dark fruit with nothing else going on. Layton’s Chance’s version is altogether different, a demonstration of measured constraint. The alcohol was integrated and the fruit was dark, but both were mellow which allowed some spice and saline to show through. The tannins are there, but are well-integrated as well.

Like Crow’s vidal, Layton’s Chance is evidence that when you embrace the right grapes, vineyard management and winemaking techniques for the land and climate, you can put out something quite good. This is the big lesson I took from the Winter Wine Festival, and is a lesson I hope more Maryland wineries embrace because that’s how the state will ultimately carve out its place in the wine world.

2012 Brunellos are alive, well, and coming to a store near you

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The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino setting up in Gotham Hall

So. Much. Brunello. I shouldn’t be surprised, I mean, this was the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino’s “Benevenuto Brunello, “or “Welcome Brunello,” 2012 vintage release tasting in New York City. Between the seated and the walk-around tastings I had the option of trying around 50 producers’ Brunellos – and their Rossos, their Sant’ Antimos, and their Moscatos. Some brought multiple vintages, others riservas to augment. One even had 100% merlot and cabernet sauvignon bottlings. It was without doubt a great line up. But, wow, so much Brunello.

Brunello, made entirely from the sangiovese grape, is one of Italy’s most lauded wines. All of it is made in a small area surrounding the town of Montalcino, which sits atop of a four-sided pyramid-shaped mountain that tops out at 2150 feet above sea level. As the mountain slopes down and flattens out, vineyards fan out in all directions, 360 degrees, at elevations between 400 and 2150 feet above sea level. The geographic distribution of vineyards covering 8,650 acres, combined with the winds that its proximity to the sea provide, the variation in elevation, and four distinctly different soil types (with variations of each) add up to a diversity of terrior. Most wineries produce blends of multiple vineyards while some produce single vineyard designates as well. It is admittedly hard to discern a lot of difference in nuanced flavors among just-released Brunello, but one can find a great deal of distinction in their youth by paying close attention to their respective structure and balance.

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The Il Poggione Winery in Montalcino (Credit: www.livelikeanitalian.com)

The 2012 vintage has been lauded by the industry and press as one of the finest in this still young century, so this event was held with palpable anticipation. For most in attendance this was our first crack at the 2012s prior to their release. It was a vintage marked by small production – one-third less than average – with a hot, hot summer followed by August rain that reduced hydric stress on the vines and finished off with what many producers called the perfect final eight weeks. The combination of esteem and small production is likely to mean higher prices. Many retailers and distributors were at the event angling to pick up the lines they most wanted, and consumers can expect to see the 2012s showing up in stores and online over the next two to three months.

All-in-all the wines didn’t disappoint, thought it’s always hard to predict where a wine will be in 10-20 years, which is how long these 2012s likely need in the cellar to fully reward. When a wine with the tannic fortitude of Brunello lives up to its potential, as it did in 2012, so much can be hidden in its youth. Attempting to see the trees through the forest, if you will, was challenging with so many tannic beasts available at beautiful Gotham Hall where the event was held.

The Consortium of Brunello producers has awarded the 2012 vintage with its full five-star rating. Frankly I don’t have the encyclopedic experience with Brunello to register an opinion on whether it’s deserving of five stars, but I can say I bought into the potential of 2012. I’m going to post some cursory tasting notes below on the wines I sampled – and I didn’t attempt to try nearly all of them – but I’d like to comment first on some characteristics that shown through many of the offerings as well as the two standout producers and one standout wine.

As I looked over my notes I found a few consistent scribblings that painted a profile I feel fair ascribing to the vintage: bright acidity generally in good balance with heavy, grainy tannins that suspend above the palate for a bit before crashing down and taking over. The fruit was generally red and fresh, with the most interesting bottles offering additions of pomegranate and watermelon. Many showed Earthy flavors like tar, cigar tobacco and smoke while the most complex delivered good salinity and floral qualities as well. Tannin integration remains modest at best for many, but this is one of the reasons why many advocate for at least a decade of aging post vintage for Brunello. If you have sufficient cellar space I suggest lying most of the 2012s down for at least that long and then consuming over the following five to fifteen years.

The day’s two standouts were wineries I had never tasted before: Máté and Tenuta Buon Tempo. Among a crowd of similarly-profiled wines the offerings from these two stood out, Máté for its full and smooth mouthfeel and dense complexity that included strong doses of herbs and wet Earth, and Tenuta for its best-in-show finesse and elegance. The standout wine, however, was a 1995 Brunello Riserva Poggio All’Oro offered to me from the generous fellow pouring at the station for the renowned Banfi. Bringing a 1995 to a 2012 vintage release party is like bringing a gun to a knife fight, so it wasn’t even close to being fair. But I’m not crying foul. A very good but not great vintage, it was nevertheless a compelling case for why Brunello deserves patience for its completeness, complexity and full integration of tannin when given time to coalesce.

Many thanks to the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino and its members who poured their wines for us. In the notes below I will put an * next to wines I would happily drink again. Wines with ** are wines I hope to revisit with purpose.

Seated Tasting (all 2012 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG unless otherwise noted)

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The seated tasting

Castelgiocondo – Very aromatic and dark with pronounced barrel and tobacco notes to go along with red fruits. Palate is quite astringent and acidic with big, juicy and tart red fruit along with leather and black pepper. There’s a nice cut of saline. The finish is quite persistent. Needs many years to integrate but the balance shows considerable progress.

Collosorbo – Very dark fruit aromas along with sweaty gym socks, Earth and pepper. The palate is impressively developed for its age, with thick tannins and balanced acid. The fruit is red and tangy, and there is tar and a bit of vegetal greenness.

La Magia – The winemaker made some brief remarks about the vintage, saying that for La Magia it was better than the lauded 2010. His vineyards are between 1,300 and 1,650 feet in elevation and this moderated some of the heat of 2012, which he believes makes it more drinkable in its youth. I found the nose to be slightly bloody and more earth than the prior two. It was still a bit reticent but is promising. The palate has strong grainy tannins but offers quite ripe strawberries that are dripping with acidic juiciness. It’s a very fresh wine but a bit singular at this point.

*La Macioche – This one showed red fruit and gasoline on the nose, with the body of the wine on the lighter side and with more lifted acid. The fruit is sweet and red with pomegranate and watermelon. It’s a little leathery and offers a celery seed spice. The integration is quite good on this and aided, I believe, by the use of French oak (not all that common in Brunello).

Loacker Corte Pavone – Very brooding nose with a dark fruit core and untanned leather. The palate is big with coarse tannins and moderate acidity. Big leather along with cranberries, raspberries and strawberries. The integration is good.

*Pian Delle Querci – Lighter bodied and more polished than any of this batch of wines, it offers strawberries with sporadic fine grained tannin. It’s a bit smoky and spicy, and in my mind the most classically styled of the bunch. The bright acidity plays with the taste buds as it washes in and out rounds of different flavors.

Talenti – Very dormant nose. The palate is big and coated with sandpaper tannin. Bright red fruit, tar and leather with black plums. Relatively approachable at the moment but it offers a lot of upside.

Banfi 2011 Riserva Poggio Alle Mura – Very expressive nose bursting with red fruit. The palate is lighter than any of the 2012s but not lacking in complexity or tannin. The acid is persistent and delightful. The fruit is red and tangy and the wine offers a nice round of herbaceous qualities.

From the Walk Around Tasting

*Altesino Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Floral nose and perfumed palate, it’s high toned acid and high octane, literally offering some gasoline-like flavors.

**Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – A dense wine, it has sweet red fruit with floral qualities that make it very pretty. There’s a lot of minerality on the palate that suggests a very pure wine.

*Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2012 – rich and ripe fruit on the nose along with sea brine. Palate is pure and mineral-driven with saline and red fruit.

**Armilla Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – Very brooding palate offering discernable oak qualities that turn the red fruit dark and bring out vanilla. The palate is similarly complex with noticeable oak influences.

Armilla Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – very round and full with a lot of floral qualities to go with big red fruit and smoke.

Banfi Rosso di Montalcino Castello 2015 – light and lean with very red fruit A little singular but also pleasurable.

*Banfi Rosso di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2015 – Nose is dominated by iodine with good texture on the palate that features red fruit and pepper.

*Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Castello 2012 – Good funk and fungal notes on the nose along with strong, ripe cherries. Smoothly textured, dense but fine tannins and ripe juicy fruit with a saline finish.

Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 2012 – A lot of rhubarb on the nose. Very sandy tannins with dark fruit that’s a bit underripe. Some mushroom and hickory smoke on the palate, too.

**Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1995 – Rich oak flavors along with dark fruit and classy Earth notes. It’s smooth and pleasantly sweet and has achieved full integration.

*Bonacchi Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – Bit funky on the nose but in a good way, it is fruit forward with a weighty body and has a nice little addition of cigar tobacco.

**Bonacchi Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Very lifted palate with nice acid and tamed but rigid tannin. Really nice red and blue fruits with smoke, saline and sweet tobacco.

*Il Poggione Moscadello di Montalcino 2016 – Tantalizingly sweet and heavy, it offers delicious mango, cantaloupe, strawberries and vanilla.

*Mate Sant’Antimo Cabernet Sauvignon/Mania 2013 – high toned, acidic for a cabernet sauvignon – and for Brunello (higher acid level than Mate’s Brunellos). Very classic cabernet sauvignon flavors but leaner and more acidic than others it would be a fantastic wine for a big steak.

*Mate Sant’Antimo Merlot/Mantus 2013 – Big, dark nose with cherries, cocoa and gasoline. Lot of acid on this as well, would be a great merlot to pair with a big steak.

*Mate Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – perhaps the best Rosso of the tasting for me, this has big strawberries and cocoa with a slightly lusher mouthfeel that retains the region’s acidity.

**Mate Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – top-2 Brunello of the tasting, this has a huge nose with fruit that is incredibly dense, pure and tangy. The palate is very round and full with smooth tannins, nice herbs and wet soil.

Palazzo Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – Really nice and juicy, not super complex but ready and rearing to go. Classic Rosso all-around.

*Palazzo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011 – Dark and brooding with a nice addition of Acai flavor to go with pepper and orange.

Palazzo Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Skunky nose with a big and dense palate and strong acidic finish. This needs time.

*Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Ripe and ready to go. The fruit is on the sweeter end of the Rosso spectrum and offers playful acidity.

*Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli Brunello di Montalcino 2010 – Smooth and nicely integrated with flamboyant dark flavors of petrol, tar and smoke to go along with massive strawberries.

Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Big tannic structure with strong acid, saline, tar and herbs. Fruit is definitely secondary at the moment.

*Tunuta Buon Tempo Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Very pure and elegant fruit on the nose with a body that is smooth and satisfying and heavier than the first sip suggests. Beautifully floral.

**Tunuta Buon Tempo Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Pretty and elegant nose. Fruit is gorgeous, diverse and complex in the mouth where the wine is very perfumed. There is blood orange as well, and all of it plays in a the wonderful structure and balance.

**Tunuta Buon Tempo Brunello di Montalcino P.56 2012 – Very, very good. One of the top two Brunellos I tried. Very pretty and feminine but doesn’t sacrifice a stout structure. Approachable now but will improve. Sweet fruit, leather, smoke and Earth and nice florals abound.

Villa Poggio Salvi Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – Nice acidity and mature fruit. Smooth with substantial tannins that thankfully don’t distract too much.

Villa Poggio Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011 – Very pretty and a little floral.

**Villa Poggio Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – Really nice red fruit on the nose offering a little extra in the way of pomegranate. Very smooth and satisfying with gorgeous tannin integration. The fruit is red and perfectly sweet. Little bit of soy sauce. Could well be the third best Brunello of the tasting.

*Villa Poggio Brunello di Montalcino Pomona 2012 – Extremely pretty nose. Palate as saturating dusty tannins and bright acidity. Flavors are of red fruit, graphite and flowers.