THE 1991 HARVEST could be the one that puts Maryland wines on the map, says Mike Fiore, owner of Fiore Vineyards in Pylesville in northern Harford County.
"This year has been unbelievable. I feel like I'm back in Europe," says Fiore, who grew up in his family's wine business in the
Calbria region of southern Italy. He's been making wines and selling them in Pylvesville since 1986.
This year's harvest has been the kind winemakers dream about, according to Al Copp, winemaker at Woodhall in Sparks. The grapes practically took care of themselves, producing a high sugar content and low acidity.
"The balance was perfect, the juice was really balanced, clean and sweet," says Fiore.
The drought, which was so bad for Maryland farmers, has been a blessing for vineyard owners. The lack of rain, for example, kept grape foliage under control, says Fiore. Winemakers didn't have to go into the fields to clip back leaves and vines to allow sun and air to circulate. This keeps sugar content high and the acid well balanced.
Fiore says the only drawback he can see is that production was kept low. His 1991 harvest will produce only about 1,100 cases.
This weekend you can sample some of Maryland's finest at the seventh annual Maryland Wine Festival Saturday and Sunday at the Carroll County Farm Museum. For more information, call the farm museum at 1-800-654-4645. The festival is sponsored by The Association of Maryland Wineries, the Maryland Grape Growers'Association and the American Wine Society.
Admission is $10 per adult of legal drinking age. Children accompanied by a paying adult will be admitted free.
The admission fee entitles each ticket holder to an engraved wine glass and ten one-ounce samples of the finest vintage from Maryland's 11 wineries.
This is the first year that "The Wines of Maryland Cup" will be presented to the most outstanding local wine.
Wines from the 1991 harvest will not be available for another year. One exception is "nouveau" wines, such as the Garnet produced at Woodhall. This redish-pink table wine, harvested over Labor Day, will be available around November.
Fiore's whites, from the current harvest, will be available in May while the Cabernet and Chambourcin won't be available until around 1994. They will be aged in oak barrels to more fully develop their flavors.
A wide variety of wines from different harvests and different vineyards will be ready for sampling at the festival. Woodhall, for example, will debut its 1988 wines, including a Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1987 Vidal and 1985 and 1986 Sevyals will also be available, Copp says.
There are 11 vineyards in Maryland producing about 300,000 bottles annually or about $1.8 million in sales -- a drop in the bucket compared to wines produced in California.
Maryland's entire production is about the size of a small boutique winery in California, Copp says.
Building a market for Maryland wines hasn't been easy. Public events, such as the one this weekend, have helped spread the word that local wines are drinkable and readily available, Copp says.
"I'm amazed at how many liquor stores now have sections of Maryland wines and how knowledgeable the wine merchants have become," he says.
Restaurant acceptance has been tougher. Many restaurants have scoffed at carrying Maryland wines because the output is so small they feel they wouldn't be able to secure enough to guarantee a steady supply.
But local winemakers say that isn't so. Copp, for example, says he would be willing to guarantee a steady supply, even if that meant setting aside cases of wine.
So why are most Marylanders more familiar with California wines than their own?
Copp says California's massive marketing efforts are the main reason.
California's stable climate also means that "it may be easier to produce good quality wine because of the evenness of temperature and climate," says Copp.
Wines grown in Maryland can vary drastically each year because of changes in the weather, says Fiore.
Fiore points to his Rosato wine to illustrate his point. The red wine can be either OK, if you're drinking the 1991 harvest, or drop-dead delicious if you get a glass of the 1989 harvest, he says.
"This is the same wine from the same grapes grown the same way. The only difference was the weather," Fiore explains.
Fiore uses only his own grapes in his wines. He fervently believes that growing conditions -- "each grape gets my undivided attention" -- are vital to the wine.
Copp uses grapes from all over Maryland to make his wines. Woodhall grapes are used for 100 percent of the Garnet but only 5 percent of the Cabernet.
He says his wine-making style, for example, aging in oak barrels -- now $100 each -- is more important than where the grapes are grown.
* Woodhall Vineyards is open for tours and tastings on Saturday and Sunday noon to four p.m. and other times by apointment. Call 301-771-4664. The 1986 Seyval, a white wine with an oak finish, is delicious. It sells for $5. The 1988 Cabernet is a good bet at $12. It's drinkable now but would benefit from an additional one to two years of aging.
* Fiore Vineyards is open for tours and tastings on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Call 301-836-7605. Fiore's 1989 Chambourcin, a red table wine with a fruity taste and aroma, is a steal at about $7. The 1989 Rosetta, if you can grab one -- supply is very limited -- is also a good buy. It costs about $5.60.
For more information about state vineyards call The Association of Maryland Wineries at 301-608-0689.