Basignani gets his due

VINTAGE POINT

State honors dry red of Butler winemaker

November 05, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Congratulations to the judges in this year's Maryland Governor's Cup competition for getting over their notorious sweet tooth and honoring a serious wine with no soda pop appeal.

The award for the best wine in Maryland this year was the 1999 Basignani Lorenzino Reserve ($22), a dry red wine made from a classic Bordeaux-style blend of grapes. It was only the second time in the past seven years that the judges have honored a dry red instead of giving the award to a sweet wine.

That record was somewhat of an embarrassment because Maryland's sweet wines are far from outstanding compared with other regions. Meanwhile, the judges were overlooking the state's best wines - its reds.

This year's award, presented at the Maryland Wine Festival, is long overdue. Bertero Basignani's flagship Lorenzino, made only in the best vintages, has been one of the state's treasures for more than a decade but had never won the state's top honor before.

"It's been driving me crazy with the sweet wines and the Governor's Cup," said Basignani, a three-time winner of the award - once for his sweet white vidal. "That what I love, that's what I like to drink, is red wine."

Basignani, whose winery is in the Baltimore County hamlet of Butler, is an unabashed fan of Maryland's red wines - his own and those made by his fellow winemakers. And well he should be.

In recent tastings, Maryland red wines - particularly its cabernets - have shown an elegant charm all their own. The state's best are distinctly different in style from either California or Bordeaux, but they compete quite well in value.

Among the wines I tasted, the one that best exemplifies the appeal of Maryland reds was not this year's medal winner but the 1998 Lorenzino Reserve (also $22).

Those who insist on blockbuster reds will be disappointed. This wine has neither the weight of California cabernet nor the hardness of young Bordeaux. It's a medium-bodied wine, but with full-force flavors of black cherry and cassis. There's enough tannin to give it structure, but they're soft - making this an inviting wine to drink right now.

There is emphatically a place in the world and on the table for a wine like this - not only complex but fun to drink. Compared with the typical California cabernet or Bordeaux in this price range, it's a bargain.

The 1999 Lorenzino will someday eclipse its older brother. It's a worthy prize-winner, with a ripe blackberry component and a level of complexity the 1998 doesn't have. Wise consumers will happily drink the 1998 now while giving the 1999 a year or two to hit its stride.

While Basignani's best barrels went into the Lorenzino in 1999, there was enough left over that year to make a charming, easy-to-drink cabernet sauvignon ($16). This medium-bodied offering lacks the intensity of the Lorenzino, but it offers pleasant drinking at a reasonable price.

Basignani also produces a just-for-fun red called Piccolo, a blend that varies from year to year, but usually combines Maryland cabernet with California zinfandel. The 2002 Piccolo ($11) is a light, pleasant, fruity and spice red wine with appealing raspberry flavors. It's meant to be drunk young.

Each year, Basignani faces formidable competition in his efforts to make Maryland's finest red wines. Among the others on the market are:

Boordy Vineyards: The 2001 Boordy Maryland Cabernet ($14) is so pure and juicy it gives the impression of sweetness without being sweet. It's a medium-bodied wine with black cherry flavors and a hint of chocolate. It's very much in the Maryland style and bears little resemblance to California cabernet. Boordy's 2000 Merlot ($14) uses out-of-state fruit but the wine is just as good as the cabernet, but in a little softer style.

Elk Run: The 2001 Maryland Merlot ($22) is a charming, medium-bodied wine with good black cherry fruitiness and intensity. Unfortunately, the 2000 Maryland Cabernet Franc ($16) was a dismal failure.

Catoctin Vineyards: The 1998 Catoctin Cabernet Sauvignon from the Mountain Church Vineyard ($18) is one of the more tannic Maryland reds, though it's softer than some of Catoctin's past offerings. It shows intense black cherry fruit but it would likely benefit from further aging.

Woodhall: The 2002 Maryland Merlot ($16) is a pleasant, medium-bodied wine with good black cherry fruit but not much complexity. It makes for good, mindless sipping.

Red wines from Fiore Winery and Linganore Wine Cellars were also tasted but cannot be recommended.

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