In Maryland, fall means sampling great seyval blanc

VINTAGE POINT

October 12, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

The tiny but hardy Maryland wine industry is much like one of those rare desert flowers that blooms for about a day or two each year then goes back into a dormant state.

The bloom always comes on the third weekend in September, when the state's wineries get together and hold a festival in Westminster.

It's an inspired idea, because there's no better time of year to be in Maryland, outdoors and have a glass of wine in your hand than early fall. Each year thousands of people -- it's up to about 25,000 now -- make the pilgrimage and it's rare that you spot anyone who isn't having a good time.

This year the second day of the festival, a Sunday, was one of those days you wish you could bottle and bring out of the closet in February or July: 70 degrees, with blue skies and a gentle breeze to stir the air under the tents.

And the wines lived up to the weather. There were luscious chardonnays, majestic cabernet sauvignons and and superb seyval blancs.

Seyval blanc, you say? Isn't that one of those trashy French-American hybrids, one of those grapes people in the East grow only because they can't count on their European varieties to survive through the winters?

Think again. Seyval blanc is a hybrid, but trash it's not. When treated with respect, it can produce exceptionally flavorful white wines -- as rich and complex as chardonnay but superior in its aging potential.

There's more. Maryland simply makes the best seyval blancs in the world. What the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer is to riesling, the rolling hills northof Baltimore are to seyval.

Wander over to the Boordy Vineyards tent and you'll see what I mean. Try the 1993 Boordy Seyval Blanc Sur Lie Reserve, which you can buy in Maryland stores for $8. Forget it's a hybrid, just close your eyes and taste the baked apple, spice, yeast and sweet oak flavors. Feel the fullness on your palate and the way its flavors hang in there long after you've swallowed.

This is great wine, and no wonder. It's made from 30-year-old vines, some of the oldest seyval in existence.

About the only criticism you can make of this wine is that it has the wrong name. "Sur Lie" makes its sound as if it's a wine to drink when you're feeling cranky. Boordy owner Rob Deford ought to call it Philip Wagner Estate Reserve to honor the winery's founder, who brought seyval vines to the United States in the 1930s. (Mr. Wagner, described as "the late" in a recent wine book, lives in retirement outside Baltimore.)

Boordy's seyvals are no fluke, however. Drift over to the Woodhall Vineyards tent and Al Copp will pour you his 1993 seyval blanc, which won the Governor's Cup for the best wine in the state this year. It's an elegant style of seyval, with a complex interplay of peach, pear, melon and spice flavors. And you can buy three bottles for the cost of one bottle of California viognier, -- few of which are as good.

Under the Basignani Winery tent, there's more evidence. With its complex flavors and full-bodied intensity, Bertero Basignani's 1993 seyval blanc could easily be mistaken for a fine chardonnay. Clearly 1993 was quite a year for seyval.

It was also a great vintage for unmistaken chardonnay in Maryland. Leading the 1993 chardonnay parade at the festival this year was Elk Run Vineyards in Mount Airy, where Fred and Carol Wilson have produced a gripping wine under the Liberty Tavern label for about $16. It's a full-bodied chardonnay with flavors of baked apple, toasty oak and spices.

For me, Basignani was the first runner-up, with Woodhall next among the 1993 chardonnays. But if there were any mediocre chardonnays at this year's festival they must have been well-hidden. Catoctin and Boordy vineyards each had a very good 1993 on display, and Loew Vineyards' chardonnay was its best wine to date.

Maryland cabernet sauvignon continued to show off its muscle. Here the stars were the 1991s. Basignani poured an excellent example of that vintage, medium weight, balanced and long in the finish. Woodhall's 1991 was concentrated and rather tannic, full of black cherry flavor but needing years in the cellar. Elk Run showed off a 1991 Liberty Tavern Cabernet Sauvignon that was chewy, medium-bodied and ready to drink now.

The best cabernets were being poured under the table though -- 1991 reserve wines that were too rare and expensive to supply for the masses. Readers might still be able to find Basignani's 1991 Lorenzino (a cabernet-merlot-cabernet franc blend) and Woodhall's 1991 Copernica Reserve cabernet on local retail shelves. They both cost about $20 and are worth every penny.

The most exciting new Maryland wine was one of its oldest -- a 1992 cabernet sauvignon from Dr. G. Hamilton Mowbray's venerable vineyard, which formerly supplied the state with Montbray wines. Montbray's gone now, but Elk Run has made a gorgeous wine from Dr. Mowbray's grapes -- a real feat in a vintage that most winemakers describe as difficult.

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