Days of wine look rosy for Maryland

Grape growers in state say recent weather created near-perfect conditions for the 2005 vintage


The days have been warm and dry, the nights cool and moist, and the rain showers few and far between. For Maryland's winemakers, it doesn't get much better.

Standing in the middle of his 15-acre Harford County vineyard on a recent sunny morning and clad in sandals and a sweat-soaked gray T-shirt, Mike Fiore plucked a red grape from the vine to inspect its quality. A week earlier, the Florence, Italy-born winemaker - who owns Fiore Winery with his wife - began harvesting green grapes, which he uses to make chardonnay, and has been impressed with their sugar levels.

The red grapes, used in his award-winning chambourcin and cabernet sauvignon, could be even better.

"Oh my God almighty," Fiore said in his Italian accent as he held the fruit up to the sun. "Unless I'm totally crazy, this is going to be one super-fantastic vintage."

The recent rain showers and overcast days should not be enough to spoil what vintners across Maryland and the region said has been a top-notch harvest season. The dry conditions that have lingered since August - while problematic for many traditional farmers - increase flavor and alcohol content in wines. The result will be richer, more-flavorful blends when they are ready to be unveiled in a few years.

Despite last week's rains, conditions since late August have been "just about perfect," said Chris Kent of Woodhall Wine Cellar in Parkton. "Sunny days, the nights being cool, no rain - those are the exact conditions that we want to see in terms of getting grapes ripe enough."

It's reason to toast for state vintners, who struggled through a terrible 2003 and for years have seen the state outpaced and outproduced by neighbors such as Virginia. The two states once had the same number of wineries - Virginia now claims 90 to Maryland's 16.

In the past legislative session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed into law the creation of a new advisory panel on wine and grape growing as well as the Maryland Wine and Grape Promotion Fund, which was given $100,000. Both were the catalyst behind an ad campaign that ended last month.

The art of the grape

Grape growing is a delicate process. Large amounts of water can travel up from the ground and into the pulp, causing the berries to grow overly large and juicy, and even break. But grapes that are starved for water become more concentrated, increasing sugars, flavor and alcohol content - which is what winemakers want.

While traditional crops such as soybeans - whose second crop yield is suffering - struggle under the drought-like conditions, they're ideal for grapes, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.

"In times of drought, grape growers try to avoid talking about it, because as other crops begin to suffer, the smile gets bigger and bigger," Atticks said.

Winemakers along the East Coast are experiencing similar success, said Tania Dautlick, executive director of the North Carolina-based American Wine Society. And in California's Napa Valley - probably the best-known winemaking region in the country - grape growers are expecting their biggest harvest in four years.

Locally, growers have been harvesting the early-ripening grapes since early last month. The next two weeks are critical for the more prominent Bordeaux, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Th grapes used to make those wines "need longer sun exposure, a longer set of warm days," Atticks said.

In 2003, pounding rains washed out the year's crops. Winemakers largely had to call it a loss and get creative, using what could have been choice fruits to make new blends of lesser-quality blush and rose wines.

"2003 was a miserable year," said Fiore, whose 2001 chambourcin won a gold medal at this year's Wines of the World Competition in Los Angeles County. "It took a lot of extra work to make that a productive year. Never mind winning awards, but just making a marketable product."

Wandering through the rows of grapes that descend down a hill, Fiore, 61, picks red ones from the vine and bites them open. With his thumb and forefinger, both stained a deep shade of purple, he squeezes the juice onto a meter that, when held up to the sun, shows the sugar content.

Not all register the high quality he sees in some parts of his vineyard. At the far end, a grape he picks shows a low reading on the meter.

The work ahead

"This might take the whole month of October," he says as he swallows the rest of the grape.

Though the dry conditions are something vintners hope for, they can also prove troublesome if too extreme. Vines are plants, after all, and need some water. Paul Roberts, who co-owns Deep Creek Cellars in Western Maryland, said he had to pick his grapes in waves because the dryness was causing the vines to drop their leaves, which is a precursor to death.

Heavy rains at this point could still be detrimental, but as long as they stay light, they help refresh the vines.

"It might actually help a bit with the vines under drought stress," said Carl DiManno, vineyard manager of the newly licensed Sugarloaf Mountain, which has 10 acres of vines. He imports an additional 40 tons of fruit from other states.

Growers say the conditions won't result in a higher quantity of grapes. But in winemaking, it's quality, not quantity.

A handful of new wineries received their licenses this season - increasing the competition for state grapes but putting the newcomers in position to reap the benefits of a fine year.

"For them, their first vintage will be 2005, and what a great vintage to have," Atticks said.


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