What Role Should Vidal Blanc Play in the Future of Maryland Wine?

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Note: this article appears in full on The Cork Report

There is a tension in the Maryland wine market. On one hand, consumers want the wines they know – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and the Vitis vinifera like – while on the other hand, Maryland doesn’t necessarily produce versions of these varieties that meet consumer expectation.

The Mid-Atlantic shares very little in common climatically with the more popular areas producing the baseline vinifera for these consumers – places like the American West Coast and Europe – and that makes it quite difficult to hit the structure and notes that people expect (unless a winery is willing to manufacture it with special winemaking techniques and additives, or source the grapes or juice from out of state and bottle it as “American wine” as some do).

The fantastic Maryland wines made with state-grown Bordeaux varieties that do exist are fantastic because they embrace the state’s terroir, not because they’re exceptional renditions of more popular styles, which makes them distinctly different from those other places. I’ve found these differences are particularly acute in red wines because warmer weather is especially beneficial in developing the fruit flavors and structure that are so directly associated with red wine. I’ll get more into this in an upcoming article on East Coast tannins.

On the white grape side, however, Maryland wineries are showing a slightly more pioneering attitude and venturing further afield to discover grapes might help them hit their own goals of quality while offering appeal to customers. Keep reading here.

Taste Camp 2017: Maryland. Hits, misses and near misses.

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Taste Camp takes over Black Ankle

No one told me that what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp, but I can’t help but think that there are things that happen at Taste Camp that should stay at Taste Camp. It’s that kind of thing, essentially wine camp for fully grown adults where our basic needs are taken care of for us. We’re given the schedule, driven around in a bus, go where we’re told to go and taste what’s put in front of us. After dinner, people meet in the hotel to consume wine and stay up late. People who fall asleep on the bus get their picture taken and mocked (as I learned firsthand), inside jokes develop at supersonic speed, and practical jokes aren’t uncouth. So what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp seems like an appropriate rule.

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The author, asleep, on the Taste Camp bus

This was the eighth year of Taste Camp, but my first. Organized by Lenn Thompson of famed The Cork Report blog, each year focuses on a new state and its wine. This year’s locale was Maryland, which made life easy for me.  Informal activities began on a Thursday night while official programming kicked off Friday morning with the crew from Old Westminster. I was unable to join the group until Saturday, and so my coverage unfortunately does not include what I still believe is the best Maryland winery. If you’re curious to find out more about Old Westminster, you can read a prior post I wrote about the winery and the family behind it. As far as I’m concerned they remain the only “don’t miss” stop on the Maryland wine trail.

Throughout my Maryland wine adventures, not just Taste Camp, I’ve noticed a few things. First, Maryland can be the home to world class wine so long as, and only so long as, the wine industry embraces Maryland’s uniqueness. For example, Maryland does not get enough warm days to produce big wines. This means grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot turn out wine a lot less like California or Bordeaux than some wineries seem to desperately want. They end up more subtle, leaner and often with under ripe fruit flavors. To counter this they attempt to do things like age the wine in 100% new French oak and end up turning out wines dominated by the influence oak, which wipes out nuances and personality. Many of the Maryland reds I’ve had aged in French oak take on an overwhelming tannic structure that takes far longer to release than the underlying juice can survive without declining. I’ve tried a number of newly released and aged red blends from across the state that saw either full or close to full new oak aging that don’t have, and won’t have, any of the rich fruit characteristics inherent to the style they’re modeled after. That may be fine for the casual wine drinker, but they’re often priced well above the price point the casual consumer buys with any regularity.

Another example of the choice many Maryland winemakers make to produce grapes that aren’t the most comfortable in Maryland is creating white programs that don’t include vidal blanc. Many wineries produce a chardonnay, usually barrel fermented, and may focus on albarino, the grape many winemakers in the state feel can be its signature white varietal, or sauvignon blanc, and even gruner vetliner. The challenge in Maryland for any white production is again the lack of consistent patterns of sustained heat, and none of these varietals have a history of producing great wines under such a climate (although gruner gets the closest). This often shows in the glass with whites that fail to achieve a good concentration, which leads to simple wines. The grape actually made to work in such a climate is vidal blanc, and although it doesn’t carry the cache of these other white varietals or the ability to develop the complexity or depth of them (when grown where they thrive), when approached from day one as a meticulous winemaker would approach any other, it can be, and in several examples I’ve tasted, much better than the vast majority of these other varietals coming out of Maryland.

The final observation I’ll share is that the industry is incredibly young and has a ceiling it hasn’t come close to touching yet. It can get there, if my opinion matters, by embracing what the state can do well and then focusing on that. This means, in addition to taking a look in the mirror and questioning their varietal selection, going deeper into the ground and really, truly examining what their soils can offer and then align those with not only the best varietals, but the best clones. Maryland, especially like Virginia but really like every other wine producing region in America, has seen an influx of wineries that far outpace vineyard planting and production. This rush to produce wine means that the state isn’t yet producing enough fruit to satisfy its wineries, and in that rush wineries are purchasing out-of-state grapes, juice and shiners while planting vineyards without taking the requisite time – measured in years, not months – to do the necessary research and trials prior to committing to a crop.

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A Big Cork Vineyard

In winemaking there is often the unfortunate reality that there is a difference between what you want to produce, what you can produce, and what you should produce. I may be biased, but the winemakers behind many of my favorite wines from around the world usually begin with the belief that wine is made in the vineyard. From what I’ve seen in Maryland, I can count on one hand the amount of wineries taking that perspective. The best of these is Old Westminster, which Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post recently profiled as taking exactly this approach. I went into Taste Camp hoping to see more recognition of this, and while I got the impression from one or two wineries I hadn’t yet come across that they get this, it seems pretty clear to me that the industry as a whole has yet to acknowledge this reality.

I joined the group bright and early on Saturday morning as we boarded the bus to Black Ankle, one of the pioneers of the renaissance of the Maryland winery movement that began in the mid-2000s and since their first vintage considered among the state’s very best. They gave the Taste Camp crew a real treat: vertical tastings of their two signature red wines going back to the first vintage of each. We began with their Bordeaux-styled Crumbling Rock and tasted the 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages. The 2006 did not seem old at all, with a discernable tannic structure still in place. The fruit had mellowed and was slightly burnt, but still enjoyable, while there were fantastic herbaceous notes and some orange zest. It was my second favorite of the lineup falling just behind the 2012, which is a baby still showing primary fruit. It was quite smooth, well integrated and balanced. The 2010 was also  nice, my third choice, and featured very juicy red fruit, nice florals and a dense, grainy tannic structure. It is no coincidence that these three vintages were the only ones to receive less than 100% new French oak. The second vertical featured Black Ankle’s Leaf-Stone 100% varietal syrah. The youngest, the 2007, was my favorite as it hit on the savory side of the syrah slope: leather, hickory smoke, and maple syrup bacon. It was fantastic and one my top-five wines of the weekend. The 2013 stood out as well, though is a few years too young at this point. The profile of smoke, mint, herbs, saline and florals crowds out the fruit at the moment, but I imagine this will develop into a top-flight syrah.

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The Black Ankle lineup

From Black Ankle we ventured to Big Cork, who put us through a tasting of current releases. We began with the 2016 sauvignon blanc that offered sweet tropical fruit, florals and musty aromas and was full bodied on the palate with peach, apricots and some creaminess. I found it to be too clean and watery, lacking in personality. Up next was the 2015 viognier, which was aged in 70% stainless and 30% oak (which was fermented in the barrel). The nose was a bit reticent but offered some soapiness, lean tropics, citrus and vanilla. The body offered very nice acidity, citrus and baking spices. I wouldn’t have necessarily picked this out of a blind tasting as a viognier, which is neither a good nor bad thing, although I found it lacking an identity.

We moved onto the 2016 rose of syrah, an excellent effort with a gorgeous nose and lush body full of red, black and blue berries and rose water. Next was the 2015 Meritage red blend, which offered a skunky nose that suggested Brett. There was also a fair amount of cedar and dark fruit. The body was medium in stature with grainy tannins and restrained fruit. The florals were pretty and played off a little petrol and cassis on the mid palate. I found this to be neither good nor bad. They then treated us to their 2013 Reserve Malbec, which had a lovely nose of potpourri, red berries and black pepper. The medium body gave flavors of acai, raspberry and dark plum, lavender, wet soil, and pepper. All of this was very appreciated but unfortunately the barrel influence weighted heavily on the wine and overshadowed everything else.

The next wine was the 2014 nebbiolo, which was fantastic. The nose offered licorice, tobacco, red berries and leather while the palate at this point is an acid bomb with good tannic structure, meaning this is going to age gracefully and develop over time. There is huckleberry, salmon berry, cranberry, spice, leather and balsamic flavors at the moment. It needs five-plus years before uncorking. We finished with their Black Cap, a port wine made from raspberries. While enjoyable, it was myopically raspberry on the nose and palate, although it came off a bit medicinal at moments.

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The tasting at Big Cork

After our tasting of Big Cork’s wine, their hospitality extended to allowing smaller wineries to use space in the winery to pour their wines for us. I will say that I am incredibly impressed by the camaraderie and gentility Maryland wineries share among themselves. There’s a recognition that a rising tide raises all boats that engenders an honest effort to rally around this principle. The bigger names seem to enthusiastically pull heavy loads in an effort to assist the collective effort to improve the state’s reputation for wine.

We tasted a number of wineries in the back of Big Cork, including Knob Hall, Mazzaroth Vineyard, Antietam Creek, Catoctin Breeze and Hidden Hills Farm and Vineyard. All of these, I believe, were new to me and were a welcomed shift in our itinerary to smaller producers. Knob Hall poured three wines including their 2015 cabernet franc rose, 2015 chambercin and 2014 Reserve cabernet franc. The rose stood out among the three as quite lovely, offering a little spice, florals and very pure but not over the top red fruit. Mazzaroth was only pouring one wine as it had sold out of everything else (a nice problem to have), a vidal blanc that offered a gorgeous nose of honeysuckle, cantaloupe and vanilla custard. The body was lush but leaned out a bit by crisp acidity that exposed honeydew, vanilla and some herbal elements. This is one of the vidal blancs I’d use to demonstrate that the varietal can be as good as, if not better than, any of the others.

Antietam Creek poured its 2015 chardonnay, which spent eight months in oak, half of it new, but was not put through malolactic. The result was a prototypical American chardonnay that offered notes like banana, vanilla, apricot and primary barrel flavors with a structure driven by oak aging. While not my flavor of chardonnay, it was a solid. The 2015 Antietam Reserve red is a clearly well-made wine that was medium in body and dominated by red and purple fruit, petrol, smoke and pepper. Their third offering was a varietally-labeled petit verdot that impressed. The nose was a bit reticent with its pepper and cherry, but the body was impressively smooth for a wine featuring 75% petit verdot (the remainder is merlot, which was the right choice to smooth out the edges and provide more body). It has nice cherry, hickory smoke and pepper.

The standout producer, not only at this stop in our itinerary but throughout the weekend, was Catoctin Breeze Vineyard. They presented three impressive wines that were all among my top-5 from the weekend. Their 2016 chardonnay was pitched as a Chablis-styled effort, and I was dumbstruck when it actually delivered a bit on that approach. Far too many domestic chardonnay producers boast about aiming for what is a particularly difficult style to emulate and utterly fail. Chardonnay from Chablis is racy, streaky, and nervous, not to mention layered with complexities. Catoctin Breeze ages some of its chardonnay in stainless and some in oak, 90% of which is second-year barrels. It turns out a ripe, round nose with classic tropical, vanilla and gravely aromas while the body achieves a very desirable balance with good acid and a deft leanness. It has nice minerality, limestone and lime notes and is just a touch creamy while it finishes with a Chablis-esque verve.

Their 2015 cabernet franc was equally great. The fantastic nose had high-toned cherries and huckleberries with petrol and pepper. The medium body featured elegant, polished tannin and penetrating red fruit including cherries, rhubarb and plums, plus that vegetal profile that most wineries unfortunately steer away from. Really awesome stuff. The last wine was their 2015 Oratorio barbera, which had a pretty nose featuring florals, orange zest and pepper while the body, quite full in stature, had wonderful leather, mint, cherry and rose. The tannic structure was substantial and will allow this to age for quite some time.

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Backroom Big Cork tasting

The next day we ventured to Boordy Vineyards and Winery, one of the biggest producers in the state. Again, we were graciously hosted as were several smaller wineries who were able to pour their wines for us. Boordy recently completed a winery makeover that is truly spectacular and would make any winemaker drool. The winery receives more than 80,000 visitors annually which as driven big growth in direct-to-consumer sales.

Boordy’s 2016 albarino showed why many believe it deserves to be Maryland’s signature white varietal. The Boordy rendition offered lime, peach, mango and flint on the nose while the medium-sized body offered sweet lemon, pineapple, green apple and marzipan. Their 2015 chardonnay, which saw 30% new oak and barrel fermentation, had a mineral-driven nose with a little chalk, lemon, lime and oak vanilla. The body is on the lighter end of the spectrum and featured bright acidity, good minerality, white pepper and reserved citrus, though the structure is clearly driven by its extensive relationship with oak. I found myself, however, wishing for greater concentration as the flavors were a little too lean.

We were then poured the 2016 cabernet franc rose, which was dominated by strawberry on the nose and palate, but also featured raspberries and huckleberries. The 2014 cabernet franc had a nice bloody nose along with cherries, smoke and pepper. The body was medium and had nicely polished tannins, but again the concentration was insufficient to establish a real presence and personality. We finished with their flagship Landmark Reserve, made in only exceptional years. This one was the 2013. The nose is quite young and hasn’t yet come together, but is promising. The medium body is very smooth and offers red and black fruits, iodine and saline, parsley, tobacco and dark cocoa. It is reticent and still too young, though the dense grainy tannic structure suggests it might improve with age. Again, however, I experienced low concentration in this one and a lack of distinction owing to the dominance of oak.

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Boordy’s new winery

Following Boordy, we tasted a number of smaller producers. The first was Chateau Bu-De whose consulting winemaker poured the wines. Bu-De sources grapes from Maryland, Pennsylvania and California and focused on vineyard-designates. Naturally we tasted their Maryland wines. The first was the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm sauvignon blanc, which had a reticent nose giving off elements from malolactic fermentation. The body is full and round, crisp but not particularly acidic. The palate is soft and features lychee, lime, slate, spearmint and vanilla. It’s a very easy drinker, I’d say a porch pounder. We then tried the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm gruner vetliner. A majority of the wine was fermented in barrel, which is an unusual approach to producing the variety and showed in the final product. It is full and lush with low acid, which is not how one would typically describe gruner. It offered lime, apricot and white pepper on top of a chalky sensation. The structure is good but it doesn’t offer a ton of varietal character, making me wonder why one would take such an approach. I’d only recommend it for people who don’t like traditional gruner.

Next was their 2015 barrel fermented chardonnay, which was fresh and bright on the nose but full and creamy on the palate and dominated by zesty lime rind. This was entirely dominated by oak and uninteresting. We finished with the Bohemian Manor Farm cabernet franc, whose reticent, sweet nose belied what is a full bodied wine with blue fruit that pops. It also offers wet dirt and a nice green pepper spice. The tannins are big and this wine will improve with time, I found it to be the most compelling of the lineup.

I also tasted through wines from Dodon, Royal Rabbit, Harford and Crow Vineyards (whose vidal blanc I called a standout at the Maryland Wineries Association’s 2017 Winter Wine Festival). I’m not going to go through all the wines, but I do want to call out Dodon’s 2015 Dungamon blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot which is a wine to follow over the next 10 years, and Royal Rabbit’s Il Barone barbera which I found quite interesting with funky and fresh aromas and flavors and great concentration.

I owe some sizable and sincere gratitude for the weekend. Lenn Thompson, Taste Camp’s founder and organizer, is the man. Thanks dude. Visit Frederick, who helped facilitate much of the weekend, was a fantastic host, as was the city itself. It’s a great city to spend a long weekend, with or without the kids. If you live or are traveling through the Mid-Atlantic, I strongly urge you to give it some time. The Maryland Wineries Association, who helped organize many of the tastings, is doing a good job representing the state’s wines. And finally, a thanks to my fellow campers who made the weekend a lot of fun. And finally, a big thanks to those whose pictures I ripped off for this post.

Final thought: don’t skip Maryland wine, but as I’ve suggested to the state’s wineries, pay close attention to how you do it. Find those who are approaching wine production intelligently and you stand a good chance of being impressed.

Wine Adventure: 24 Wines from Ontario

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I grew up in Washington State, about 25 miles south of the US border with Canada. With our antenna, I lived through my formidable years on Canadian television. Though we admittedly watched little TV in my house growing up, the quirky (okay, cheesy) humor of the Red Green Show, brilliantly staged Just For Laughs’ gag segments and improv genius of Second City Television formed my sense of humor to a very large degree. When I was in high school and racing bicycles, I can’t tell you how many times we’d drive up to the Vancouver area for races. Vancouver, still my favorite city in North America and one I don’t get to visit nearly enough, is home to the best culinary scene I’ve experienced in any of my travels around the world, including my short stint living in Barcelona and my trip to Tokyo, two cities widely considered to be among the very best for food. And the people, so nice.

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Red Green and his nephew, Harold. Credit: tvtropes.org

I left the Pacific Northwest in 2005 and although I get back at least once a year I’ve still not made it to British Columbia’s wine country, which has an improving reputation. I’ve been trying to figure out how to experience some of their wines here in Washington, DC and have come up blank – BC wine industry folk, if you’re reading this, please help! However, I’ve also long been told that wine country in another province, Ontario, had something to say about making quality Canadian wine and I can say now, thankfully, that I’ve been able to experience some of what they produce.

It all started last November in the tasting room of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, California. I was in the area for work but was able to visit ABC and Jaffurs, two of my California favorites. While at ABC I met a woman who worked for a winery in Ontario. We got to talking, I told her about Good Vitis, my interest in trying Canadian wine and the difficulty I’ve had finding it where I live. We stayed in contact and she offered to put together a selection of wines from across Ontario and ship them to me as samples to review for Good Vitis.

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The reds

And boy, did she deliver. About two months ago two cases showed up at my office spread across ten wineries. There was pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay, riesling, cabernet franc and red and white blends. As I looked through the treasures, I wondered how I was going to try all this wine. First world problems, I know. Eventually I was able to cobble together some friends from the wine industry here in DC, including a fellow blogger and the manager of a retail outlet for a well-respected East Coast importer, to share in the experience.

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I had also emailed my Internet friend Peter Vetch, a proud Calgarian and author of Pop & Pour wine blog (by the way, his posts on the Finger Lakes Region are a must-read for anyone considering or planning a trip there), to get some information about Ontario wine and show him the lineup. Ontario has three appellations: the Niagara Peninsula (with ten sub-appellations and two regional appellations), Lake Erie North Shore (one sub-appellation) and Prince Edward County (no sub-appellations). The history and terroir of the three appellations are pretty diverse. Peter confirmed that the wines were almost entirely from the Niagara Peninsula (three came from Prince Edward County) and were a decently representative sample of that appellation. While all three appellations lie in climates that are on the cooler end of the global wine growing spectrum, they experience differing amounts of warming, cooling, wind and rainfall, and have different soil types. That being said, my eight favorite wines in the lineup came from six different sub-appellations of the Niagara Peninsula, so I’m a bit confused, if I’m honest, about the impact these differences have on the final product. The answer may be clear to someone with more Ontario wine experience than myself, I don’t know. Terroir, also, can be changed dramatically in a winery and I imagine there was a fair amount of this factor in play.

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The whites

In the same vein, there was a massive range of quality in these wines. I rated wines as low as 75 points and as high as 92, and the distribution of scores is spread across that range. There were also significant stylistic differences among wines made from the same varietals. This could be accounted for by the fact that they were made by different winemakers, though the differences were so significant that even differences in sub-appellation and winery don’t seem sufficient explanations. The others at the tasting had similar reactions.

I have positive and negative things to say about the wines. Let me get the negatives out of the way. While all significant, they are also all relatively easily addressed by the winemakers and vineyard managers. Given that we had a number of high quality wines that we enjoyed, the location of the vines is clearly not the issue in wines that demonstrated problems. A number of wines showed very artificial flavors (one I described as smelling and tasting like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt), which are the result of winemaking, not terroir. Many were overly acidic, meaning that the body, alcohol and flavors were so out of balance with the acid that the best explanation seemed to be freewheeling acidulation. Several wines seemed watery, which in a couple instances was unfortunate because the diluted flavors were dynamic and could have been wonderful under greater concentration. This can be addressed either in the vineyard or the winery, or both, depending on the source of the phenomenon. Some wines clearly demonstrated poor yeast strain selections, while a few had obvious quality control issues in the winery, likely poor cleaning practices of the facilities. Finally, a few were over oaked, at least for my palate, but also in a way that didn’t allow me to confirm what I thought could have been some really delicious flavors that could have merited higher scores.

On the positive side, several wines offered truly interesting and unusual flavor profiles that captivated our attention. Many offered great complexity in their flavor profiles, though even the best, unfortunately, didn’t offer the concentration or depth needed to elongate the experience and transform it into something magical. I was sent three gamays, two of which blew us away (and this was an audience well acquainted with great gamay). As a varietal cohort in the lineup it was the most impressive, and we all agreed were wines we’d buy ourselves. The fruit notes were generally appealing, though some showed unusual and appealing combinations. The very best combined bright, focused fruit in harmony with savory and Earthy flavors.

The eight wines that stood out for me included Bachelder’s 2013 Lowery Vineyards pinot noir and 2013 Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard chardonnay, which demonstrated a deft winemaker’s hand capable of spotlighting the best their fruit had to offer. Cave Spring delivered the best pinor noir in the lineup. 13th Street Winery gave us two world class gamays that offered some awesome gaminess to go with its ripe fruit. Stratus delivered a very good cabernet franc that stylistically straddled the new and old worlds. Tawse supplied the best chardonnay, if not the best wine, of the lineup, and Charles Baker gave us an intriguing riesling. Flat Rock Cellars and Norman Hardie had some solid efforts as well, and it isn’t hard to imagine even better wines coming out of their wineries in the not-too-distant future.

While ten wineries and two cases of wine is a pretty fantastic introduction, it is certainly not fully representative of a wine region as big as Ontario. Without trying a good deal more, and without speaking to a number of winemakers and vineyard managers, I wouldn’t want to pass any kind of declaratory judgment on Ontario wine other than to say this: there are clearly people in Ontario making good and interesting wine, and if more can sharpen their craft it’s a region that could well rise in status in the wine world.

A big thanks to all of the participating wineries and especially to Jennifer Hart of Flat Rock Cellars. All the wines were supplied as trade samples and tasted sighted. As many of these wines are not consistently distributed in the US, and because I could only find pricing in Canadian dollars for most of them, I’m going to avoid mis-valuing these wines by not assigning values to them as would normally be my standard procedure.

Wines

2015 13th Street Gamay Noir – Big cherry nose with beef smoked over hickory and some tangerine. It’s a little skunky, but not in a bad way. Funky and appealing aromas. The palate is slightly tannic and offers nice acidity in balance. Flavors offer ripe cherry, cranberry and quite a bit of raspberry to go with some game. Very interesting gamay offering flavors unusual in the varietal grown elsewhere. 89 points.

2014 13th Street Gamay Noir Reserve Sandstone – Wonderful nose of peppered salmon jerky, mushroom funk, cherries and black pepper. The palate offers fun flavors of acai, raspberry, blood orange, turkey jerky and iodine. Not a ton of depth but oh so enjoyable. Very intriguing terroir shows in this wine. 91 points.

2013 Bachelder Chardonnay Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard – The nose is quite pretty with mango, pineapple and perfumed flowers. There’s also a bit of chalk. The palate is lush without being heavy, and the acid is well balanced with sweet starfruit, pineapple, lemon and peach. There’s a diversifying kick of white pepper. A solid, complete chardonnay. 90 points.

2013 Bachelder Pinot Noir Lowrey Vineyards – The nose offers macerated cherries, smoke, pepper, rose and dandelion. It offers a full, ripe and shiny mouth feel in a medium body that is nicely rounded with sweet cherries, black pepper and tangerine. There is also a bit of cocoa, pipe tobacco and tar. The flavor profile is a complex one, though it lacks significant depth. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive, classy effort. 90 points.

2015 Cave Spring Riesling Cave Spring Vineyard – The nose smells of tennis ball gas, straw, honey, pepper, guava and a lot of citrus zest. The palate is a tad bit effervescent and dry with nice limey acidity. There seems to be more flavor here that could be teased out with just a touch of residual sugar. 86 points.

2015 Cave Spring Pinot Noir – This offers a very pretty nose of dark cherries, plums, a variety of baking spices and some herbal qualities. The body is full with polished tannins. The flavors include chocolate covered cherries, celery, Herbs de Provence, black pepper, cinnamon and orange zest. It has the requisite depth and acidity to improve over the next few years if cellared properly. 91 points.

2013 Charles Baker Riesling Picone Vineyard – Big tennis ball gas on the nose, a little kerosene and a lot of chalk. The palate coats the mouth with seeming sweetness in what is a dry offering. There is honeyed kumquat, white pepper, slate and peach. The acid is kicking on the finish which dries the palate a bit too quickly. A good effort. 90 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay The Rusty Shed – A modest nose of citrus and mothballs. The palate is light, lush and a little soapy. There is a little sour citrus and green apples combined with sweet peach. Starfruit and white pepper round out the flavor profile. Lacks in weight – feels a bit watery – and complexity but is pleasant enough to sip. 87 points.

2014 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Twenty Mile Bench – The nose offers macerated cherries, rhubarb and pickle juice. The palate is heavy and offers dark fruits. There are significant barrel notes of cocoa and hazelnut, although a bit of greenness, tar and smoke emerge. A bit too judicious use of oak on this as it seems to be beating down more interesting flavors lurking beneath it. 88 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Gravity – The nose is smoky, offering cherries, herbs and charred barrel notes. The palate is light but offers good density and robust grainy tannins. There is pickle juice, tart red fruits, smoke and tar. However, all of this is unfortunately beaten down by heavy toasted barrel notes. Less oak would have produced a more nuanced and complex wine. 88 points.

2016 Malivoire Pinot Noir Rosé Moira Vineyard – Smells and tastes like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt, likely the result of an unplanned rose in which leftover juice was hit with a random yeast strain. 75 points.

2012 Malivoire Pinot Noir Mottiar – Smells of a natural gas leak, burnt rubber and raspberries. Tastes of ground cherry pits and gasoline. 75 points.

2015 Malivoire Gamay Small Lot Beamsville Bench VQA – Pretty red fruit on the nose along with black pepper and orange peel. The palate is medium bodied with noticeable tannic structure. The raspberries and huckleberries are quite juicy, which give way quickly to a watery sensation with watermelon and orange juice flavors that suggest high levels of lactic acid brought on by inoculation through a foreign yeast strain or two. Detrimentally over-engineered. 85 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered – The nose is zesty and features straw and assorted roasted nuts. It’s lean bodied and offers exceptionally bright acid with textured lemon and lime zest. That the high level of acid is so out of proportion to the lean body suggests over acidulation. 86 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay County – The nose is dominated by malolactic influences and is supported by nutty aromas while the palate is extremely zesty and bright with almond and peanut flavors. It strikes me as being overly acidulated as the acid is far out of balance with what is a very light body. 85 points.

2015 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir Unfiltered – Fantastic nose of pretty red fruits and flowers with just the right amount of tar and smoke. The palate is quite juicy offering raspberry, huckleberry and cherry to go with a little cocoa and parsley. An easy and pleasant drinker. 89 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir County – The nose wreaks of Brett and manure while the palate is filled with plastic flavors and bright fruit. It is quite watery and has a hint of effervescence. Neither undrinkable nor desirable. 80 points.

2013 Southbrook Winery Chardonnay Poetica – Unfortunately corked, not rated.

2015 Southbrook Winery Vidal Orange Wine – Nose: Brett band aid, Styrofoam and big apple cider vinegar. Not particularly pleasant. The palate is light, lean and musty. Sweet and sour flavors, very reminiscent of a light mead. There were some issues in the winemaking with this one, likely some quality control lapses. 79 points.

2013 Stratus White – The nose offers abundant peach and plastic with a slight whiff of parsley. The palate is lush and smooth, but the low acid turns it flabby in a hurry. It tastes of peach, white pepper, honey and marzipan. This is potentially showing its age and should be consumed sooner rather than later. 88 points.

2013 Stratus Cabernet Franc – The nose is meaty, savory and dark in its bramble berry, blood and smoke notes. The palate is medium bodied with tannins that release with air. It offers flavors of asparagus, beef jerky, oranges, strawberries and cherries and shows discernible but constructive charred oak influence. A nice twist on cabernet franc, I quite enjoyed this despite its slight watery sensation. 90 points.

2012 Stratus Red – A reserved nose of dark fruit and smoked salmon jerky. The palate seemed nondescript, but still enjoyable. Dark fruit was in abundance as was a sense of loam and dark Earth, but it is all overshadowed by too eager a use of oak. It offers a bit of vegetal flavors and finishes with a big pepper kick. 87 points.

2013 Tawse Chardonnay Quarry Road Vineyard – Nose: very zesty Meyer lemon and lime, stone fruit and a lot of slate and chalk. There is also some smoke, petrol and a little lees must. The palate is lush, creamy and dense with nicely balanced acidy that keeps the wine from becoming heavy or cloying. The oak treatment and fermentation adds nice weight and structure to the palate without bringing any of the annoying butter, toast or oily peanut tagalongs. There is lemon curd, peach, dried apricot, parsley, celery, grass, a hint of spearmint and some nice limestone. This is good stuff. 92 points.

2013 Tawse Pinot Noir Cherry Ave Vineyard – The nose offers mint and stewed dark berries and plums. The palate is quite tannic – give this a good decant or a few more years in the cellar – and full bodied. There is a little bit of kerosene kick, but it’s in good balance with ripe cherries, white pepper, bitter herbs, dandelion. Intriguing but not terribly complex. 88 points.

 

 

 

 

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.