The fruits of Maryland's labors Wines: Despite an often unforgiving climate, the state's vintners are producing some stellar grapes.

November 24, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

If people were guided entirely by reason, there would be no Maryland wine industry.

It's tough to grow grapes here. You get murderous freezing in winter and killing frosts in spring. Molds flourish during the state's humid summers. Tropical storms sweep though in September, diluting the juice just before harvest. And if the fruit escapes all those cruel fates, birds devour a large part of the crop.

But humans aren't calculators. They do foolish things such as establishing wineries in Maryland -- there are nine -- and daring to dream that they can make world-class wines.

The funny thing is, some of them are succeeding. It turns out that when the weather cooperates, Maryland is capable of producing grapes that are as ripe and well-balanced as any on the East Coast.

Some of the best Maryland wines are products of the classic European wine variety vinifera, including cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling.

Others are made from less celebrated French-American hybrid grapes such as seyval blanc, vidal and chambourcin.

My recent sampling of Maryland wines found the industry to be in a bit of a slump. The 1994 vintage was difficult all around, while 1995 was troublesome for some of the whites. And according to Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards, record rainfall has turned 1996 into a major headache.

Nevertheless, there are some excellent Maryland wines on the ++ market that show that operating a winery here might not be so unreasonable after all.

My Exhibit 1 for this proposition would be the 1995 Catoctin Johannisberg Riesling ($10), a Maryland-grown gem that many a German producer would envy. It boasts excellent balance in a slightly sweet style that is perfect for pairing with ham or turkey. The flavors of apple, orange, spices and minerals combine in a white wine of considerable complexity.

Almost as impressive was the 1995 Woodhall American Riesling ($10.49), winner of this year's Governor's Cup at the Maryland Wine Festival. It offers flavors of baked apple, pear, honey and spices in a lightly sweet style similar to the Catoctin.

Maryland is capable of producing some fine chardonnays, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from the crop on the market now. (Caveat: I haven't tasted Catoctin's latest release.)

The 1994 Woodhall ($11) was the best of the lot, but even it failed to register with much intensity on the palate. The 1995s from Basignani and Elk Run Liberty Tavern were particularly light rTC for wines priced at about $15.

Leave it to the lowly seyval blanc to redeem Maryland's reputation for producing white wines. The 1995 Boordy "Sur Lie Reserve" is a terrific value when sold for $7.50 at the winery, and still a good buy at the $10 charged by some high-markup retailers.

The 1994 Woodhall Seyval Blanc ($9) also out-chardonnays most Maryland chardonnays, offering well-integrated flavors of oak, peach, vanilla and honey.

Frugal consumers who don't care about frills such as a varietal name or vintage date can find a terrific value in the simply named Boordy White ($6). Its peachy flavors, with hints of spice and honey, offer as much pleasure as most of the Maryland chardonnays available these days.

"Adequate" is perhaps the best descriptive word for most of the dry Maryland reds released recently, but there is one glorious exception.

Basignani Vineyards' 1993 Lorenzino Reserve ($21) is a worthy successor to the exquisite 1991, the maiden vintage for this Bordeaux-style blend. It offers deep, concentrated black cherry fruit, with hints of chocolate and smoked meat. Behind the lush texture lies excellent tannic structure. If 1991 resembled a St. Julien, the 1993 recalls the style of a fine Margaux.

Adventurous consumers might also want to try two charming oddballs -- Berrywine Plantation's Peach Wine and Elk Run's 1995 Sweet Katherine.

The Berrywine ($10.49) is a crisp, light-alcohol, bone-dry fruit wine with an ethereal prettiness I found quite surprising. It could be drunk with light shellfish but would probably serve best as an aperitif. Alas, it's a rather summery beverage.

The Elk Run is one of those rare nonfortified red dessert wines that is neither cloying nor simple. Instead, it offers all the complexity and balance of a fine cabernet in an intensely sweet package.

If it were not produced in such small quantities (it is sold only in Maryland), the Sweet Katherine would likely be receiving enough critical acclaim to drive its price to stratospheric levels. Luckily, Marylanders can purchase a 500-milliliter bottle for about $12.50.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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