Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Black Ankle Vineyard (MD) A Rising Star in the East

So I finally made it down to Black Ankle Vineyards. Though Dave McIntyre had introduced me to the wine more than a year ago, I had not been able to get down to Mt. Airy, until recently, when we took a family trip to Baltimore (yeah, of the 100+ degree days), and I was able to drag the entire family to the winery, complaints and all, “Oh, Dad, not another winery!”

“It’ll only take a few minutes,” I respond enthusiastically.

“You always say that, then we’re here for two hours!” they decry. I can’t say they are wrong….ah, well.

My wife, and two sons (with sour, scourge filled faces), walked to the tasting room door on a Sunday morning. It was the first time ever in my life that I was ever this early for a tasting – we arrived before noon. I was embarrassed. The tasting room staff took pity on us as the temperature at noon was already nearing 100. They let us in but were not yet ready to do a tasting.

Since owner Ed Boyce and Sarah O'Herron (both former management consultants) purchased the property in May of 2002, they have made and applied compost in place of chemical fertilizers and they have never used herbicides of any kind. “We use 100% biodiesel fuel to power our tractors. With each passing year, we learn more about how to discourage pests naturally, and we continue to experiment with new pest management ideas. Although we are not yet able to farm 100% organically, we are optimistic that with more research and ingenuity we will get there before too long,” say owners Ed and Sarah. “We have also made the decision to farm with the principles of Biodynamics, the original Organic farming movement which was founded by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920's. Biodynamics adds several dimensions to our work on the farm: working as much as possible by the rhythms of the moon, planets and seasons; a strong emphasis on biodiversity; a goal of self-sufficiency (or as close as possible) for the farm as a whole; and a belief that our farm is a system of interrelated organisms, so that what happens in any one place affects the entire farm.”

Black Ankle first opened their doors in 2008. And they are 100% estate grown. Also, they have won three Virginia Governor’s Cups since opening. All impressive. And the wines I have tasted at random from them were also delicious. No off flavors or noses, nothing but rich, luscious fruit and soft oak and low tannins. Very nice stuff. So I was here to see how it all held up under scrutiny.

The vineyard consultant is Lucie Morton. On the east coast, there are few vineyard managers as famous as Lucie Morton. Lucie is an independent viticulturist. Trained in Europe and based in Virginia, she is an author, lecturer, and consultant on viticultural topics in the international arena. Areas of special interest are ampelography, rootstocks, grape and wine quality, and vineyard longevity. Her touch is evident here.

In 2005, winemaking consultant Lucien Guillemet was brought in to help guide the program, though Sarah is the hands-on day-to-day winemaker. Lucien is winemaker at Chateaux Cadet Bon in St. Emilion, and started working with Black Ankle in 2005.
With this kind of backing, it’s easy to understand why this winery is so successful.

That's one heck of a team to start with. And the accolades have come rolling in.

“At Black Ankle Vineyards, we believe that the beautiful rolling hills of Maryland are perfectly suited to yield wines of great complexity, subtlety and nuance—wines that can compare favorably with the finest Europe has to offer. A truly great wine comes only from a truly great vineyard, and we believe that our mix of soils, climate, grape varieties, viticulture, personal commitment, and a bit of magic have been the secret to creating some wonderful wines,” says the winery’s website. When you first arrive, it seems all very true.

The place is beautiful, as row upon row of vineyards uncoil of one rolling hill after another. There are waves of vineyard. The only flat space on the farm is where the tasting room rests.

The tasting room staff was very nice, and waved us in. They couldn’t pour for us yet, but they were happy to let us sit inside and get out of the 100 degree heat. The space was beautifully appointed, an wonderful newspaper articles and reviews were pasted everywhere. But mostly it was a big comfortable space with lots of roomy chairs and big tables.

Dennis was our pourer, and he did an excellent job!

Viognier 2011 - This wine was 96% Viognier and 4% Syrah. Fantastic! Lovely, light, and bright, this wine started off with essence of peach and apricot and honeysuckle. Some pear. There was some mineraliness to it. Lovely floral nose. Very nice!

VGV 2011 – 50% Viognier and 50% Gruner Veltliner. Lots of nectarine and grapefruit in this light white. A hint of grassiness? Nice, tart, refreshing ending. Lovely.

Chardonnay 2011 – 96% Chardonnay and 4% Muscat. The was a lovely wine. Done is 40% new French oak, and 60% neutral French oak. Pineapple, lemon custard, and honey all come through as promised on the nose. This wine is as complex and well-balanced on the palate as advertised. Lemon, peach, pear, and mineral fill the mouth. A nice, light citrus ending. The muscatel I think really made the difference. Fantastic!

Bedlam Rose 2011 – This was a mix of Viognier, Gruener Veltliner, Merlot, Albarino, Chardonnay and Muscat. Strawberry and lime zest come across right away, as well as peaches. Light bright cherry and strawberry come across on the palate with flavors of mineral, and a touch of tartness. Again, very nice!

Now onto the red wines…..

2011 Passeggiata – This is a blend of 11 different grapes, starting with 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Syrah. It’s aged in French oak. Bright cherry, raspberry and vanilla aromas waft out of the glass. Defintely bright cherry on the palate with a nice smoothness. A hint of cedar in this? Nice, bright fruit, with not too much acidity and soft tannins. A lovely drinking wine. A light to medium red dry wine, it’s smooth and drinkable. We really, really liked this one. Excellent! A definite star!

Rolling Hills 2009 – This is a blend of 44% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Syrah. Aged in 60% new French Oak and 40% in neutral French oak. Much darker, deeper wine with ripe black cherry, dried cranberry, and subtle cocoa all coming through as promised on the nose. On the palate luscious dark stewed fruit came through, plum, blackberry, and cassis dominating. Low acidity and nice, structured tannins gave this fabulous dry red the backbone to stand up. Absolutely exceptional! Awesome!

2008 Leaf-Stone Syrah – This is grown in a vineyard where the predominant stone is a flat, slate-like stone, thus the name leaf-stone. This wine is 80% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 2% Viognier, 2% Petite Verdot, 1% Malbec, and 1% Merlot. This was a big, smokey wine, with giant whiffs of leather and plum oozing out of the glass. There was also a hint of barnyard, as in some of the best of Burgundy. Black cherry, cranberry and vanilla all came though as promised. It’s a big, dark, silky dry red wine.

Terra Dulce II – A wonderfully aromatic port-styled wine. Made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Pinot Noir, Viongier, Chardonnay, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, and Muscat. A big nose of vanilla and raisin on the nose lead of this complex, lush, and rich heady mixture of grapes. Big dark fruit flavors of blackberry and black cherry come through, and as promised, a hint of orange peel and brown sugar. Fantastic!!

Black Ankle absolutely lived up to the hype!!! It was an incredible tasting. The only bummer of the day is that they did not have Slate for sale, which absolutely bummed me out! But I’d already tasted it somewhere else. I was only sorry my wife, who was quite impressed, didn’t get a chance to try it. That was the only blemish on the day. An uptown problem to say the least.

Black Ankle easily sets the new standard for what is going on in Maryland wine. It’s almost like the northern most Virginia winery in its ethics, aesthetic, and product. And it has absolutely set the bar very high for other Maryland wineries. Black Ankle is among some of the better east coast wineries. Black Ankle is another example of how serious quality wine is being made on this coast. It's worth the trip no matter where you're coming from.

Congrats to Ed and Sarah!