Assessing the character of the local vines Wine: The critic delivers kicks and kudos to Maryland's winemakers and their products.

March 29, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

It was, as I recall, a 1980 cabernet sauvignon from the now-defunct Byrd Vineyards near Myersville that first showed a certain young skeptic that Maryland could indeed produce fine wine.

A few years later an "ice wine" riesling from Montbray Vineyards proved to that same doubter that Maryland could make great wine.

Those wines and others kindled an interest in Maryland wine that has surfaced periodically in this column over the past 16 years. Sometimes as a goad, sometimes as a cheerleader, I have tried to chronicle the successes and the shortcomings of this state's tiny wine industry.

The Byrd and Montbray wineries are gone now, but others thrive. Today we turn our attention again to Maryland winemakers -- giving kudos to some and kicks in the pants to others.

Folks, you've been doing some good work, but you've got to do even better. In a recent series of tastings, I found some excellent wines -- but far too many that were disappointing.

You know you can't afford that. Consumers are funny -- they taste one bad Maryland wine and become convinced they are now experts on how awful all Maryland wines are. It might take years to persuade them to taste Winery A's wonderful cabernet because Winery B made a substandard chardonnay in 1990.

And substandard chardonnay is a problem. All too often Maryland wineries have been settling for chardonnay grapes that simply don't have enough concentration and character.

That is certainly the case with the 1995 Loew Vineyard ($15) and 1996 Boordy Vineyards ($12) chardonnays. The Loew simply lacks the expected intensity and acidity for a wine in that price range. With its '96 products, Boordy tried to make up for absent fruit with excess oak.

Other Maryland wineries are showing a much surer hand with chardonnay. The 1996 Elk Run Liberty Tavern Reserve, for instance, is a spectacular wine that rivals California chardonnays selling for twice its $17 price tag. It's a lush, ripe, long-finishing wine that is packed with flavors of baked apple, vanilla, sweet oak and mulling spices.

The 1995 Woodhall Chardonnay ($13) isn't quite as dramatic, but the medium-bodied wine has the balance and moderate complexity necessary to pass for a good Macon from Burgundy. The 1995 Catoctin Vineyards ($12) is also a capably made wine.

In general, Maryland's best wines are its cabernet sauvignon and cabernet-dominated blends, but vintage variations can be severe. The grapes usually need a stretch of warm, sunny weather in early October to achieve proper ripeness -- and plundering birds can severely reduce a crop.

Successful vintages

During the 1990s, all the odd-numbered years are considered successful vintages. That certainly was true in 1993, which yielded such highly successful wines as the Basignani Cabernet Sauvignon ($14) and the Basignani Lorenzino Reserve ($22).

The regular bottling of 1993 Basignani is showing especially well now, though you probably ought to decant it because of the copious sediment. The wine is fully mature, with plenty of supple black-cherry and black-currant fruit. The Lorenzino, a Bordeaux-style blend, is a more complex wine -- reminiscent of a good Medoc -- that could use a few more years in the cellar.

Unfortunately, Boordy's 1995 cabernet ($12.19) isn't nearly as successful. There's plenty of tasty black-currant and meat flavor, zTC but the wine lacks grip and concentration. It resembles the kind of Bordeaux the French drink for lunch, while saving the serious wine for dinner. It is becoming clear that Boordy desperately needs to develop some different sources for its vinifera grapes.

It's tough to criticize a small winery with few resources for producing subpar wines in lesser vintages. It's perhaps enough to say that the 1994 Woodhall ($12) and 1992 Catoctin ($12) cabernets show the winemakers did the best they could and produced tolerable wines. Still, it's a shame these wines could not be declassified in some way -- either sold as a second label or as a generic red wine.

Only minuscule quantities of merlot are grown in Maryland, and most is blended with cabernet. When it is bottled separately, it can be quite good but not up to the standards of the best cabernets.

The 1995 Woodhall Merlot ($16) shows the peril of buying grapes from the Eastern Shore. The Delmarva Peninsula may be a wonderful place to grow chickens, but to my knowledge it has never produced a grape with decent fruit concentration.

French-American hybrid grapes don't get nearly the respect that European grapes do, but they produce some of Maryland's most successful wines.

The finest of these hybrids is the white variety seyval blanc. It makes a very fine full-bodied, dry white wine (a kind of poor man's chardonnay), and Maryland-grown seyval is among the best.

For now, the best example on the market is the 1995 Woodhall American Seyval (not entirely grown in Maryland but made at the Parkton winery). It's a full-bodied, dry white with hints of lemon, orange, honey, oak and herbs -- an excellent value at $9.49.

Surprisingly, Boordy's 1996 Sur Lie Reserve Seyval Blanc ($9.19) falls far short of its usual sterling standard. There's plenty of fruit, but the flavors are overripe, leaving funky tastes and aromas like fruit that has been in the refrigerator too long. In this vintage, the regular 1996 Boordy Seyval Blanc ($8.19) is the more clean, crisp, palatable wine.

Most red hybrid grapes produce detestable wines, but the Woodhall's 1995 Chambourcin ($10) is a delightful exception. The wine could easily pass for a fine country red from the south of France. It should be drunk this year.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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