Spoler, host of Cellar Notes on Baltimore radio station WYPR, convened the invitation-only tasting last month at the Center for Maryland Agriculture in Cockeysville, north of Baltimore. About a dozen of the Free State’s winemakers assembled to taste their history: Maryland red wines of vintages ranging from 1981 to 2006. The idea was to see how Maryland wines hold up over time, and to reminisce about an era when Maryland first showed promise for making world-class wine.
Bert Basignani brought several vintages of his Basignani cabernets, and Rob Deford offered older Boordy wines. Mike Fiore of Fiore Winery regaled anyone within earshot about the virtues of chambourcin. Chris Kent of Woodhall Wine Cellars shared his single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from vineyards no longer producing grapes. There were cabernets and a pinot noir from Elk Run Vineyards in the 1990s, courtesy of Neill Bassford. Bob Lyon brought some wines he’d made at Catoctin Vineyards in the 1980s. Joe Fiola, the University of Maryland’s viticulturist, poured wines from his cellar, along with insight on the state’s best vineyard sites, then and now.
Their wines were fascinating. The 1982 Montbray Cabernet Sauvignon was brick red in color yet still bright and alive on the nose and palate, with spice-box aromas of clove, pepper and fenugreek. Then, about an hour later, it fell apart. The Byrd wines, especially a 1983 cabernet, were equally spicy, if less elegant.
The winemakers spoke with optimism about the wines they are making today, using new techniques and knowledge they didn’t have a decade or two ago. The 2006 vintage cutoff for this tasting was imposed to ensure that the wines had some age, but also to separate the old from the new period of Maryland wine. The middle of the past decade saw the advent of wineries such as Black Ankle and Sugarloaf Mountain, as well as Boordy’s ambitious effort to replant its estate vineyards according to modern winemaking standards.
Modern winemakers strive to ripen the grapes fully by dropping green fruit in the vineyard and sorting out anything underripe at harvest. “The tannins are still there, but they are in a softer flavor profile,” Deford said. “It’s tannin management rather than the sheer amount of tannin.”
And what about timing the harvest, Spoler asked. “How has your philosophy of winemaking in Maryland changed?”
“In the old days, we’d harvest before the birds or the hurricanes,” Deford quipped.
“What has changed is our ability to get to harvest,” said Ray Brasfield, winemaker at Cygnus winery and the original winemaker at Woodhall Vineyards. “The healthier you can get fruit to veraison” — the point where the grapes turn color and begin to ripen — “increases the chances you’ll have healthy, ripe fruit at harvest.”
Everyone left that day with a greater appreciation of Maryland’s viticultural history, as well as anticipation for a future retrospective tasting, when wines being made today will tell the next chapter of the story.
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