Toasting Maryland's bubblies

Ring in the new year with locally made sparkling wines

  • Ray Brasfield, owner and winemaker at Cygnus Wine Cellars, located in Carroll County, makes sparkling wine using the same process used for champagne.
Ray Brasfield, owner and winemaker at Cygnus Wine Cellars,… (Kim Hairston / Baltimore…)
December 24, 2013|By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

Though New Year's Eve is less than a week away, even last-minute party planners have time to add a Maryland sparkling wine to their celebrations.

With seven of the state's 56 wineries producing America's version of champagne, the local wine industry has a lot to offer.

"Most well-made sparkling wines have a freshness imparted by the effervescence and the bright fruit," says Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wine Association, which is based in Timonium.

And besides, "Bubblies are interesting and look so nice in the glass," he says.

Sparkling wine is produced the same way in the United States as it is in the Champagne region of France, he says. The main distinction between the two countries' products is their labels; only that specific region has the right to use the term "champagne" on its bottles.

So then, what's the difference between Maryland and California sparkling wines?

About 2,800 miles, jokes Ray Brasfield, owner and winemaker at Cygnus Wine Cellars, located in the northeastern Carroll County town of Manchester.

Wineries on the East Coast are "a lot more adventurous" than their counterparts on the West Coast, surprisingly enough, because they grow more grape varieties, says the former aerospace engineer.

"I use varieties of grapes that are not grown on the West Coast — which is where most national brands come from — so [my wines] have a decidedly different character," says Brasfield, who also makes still (non-effervescent) wines.

Cygnus produces three sparkling wines: Blanc de Blanc, Hampton Cuvee, and Rose de Noir — all under the label Royele — that sell for $23 a bottle. Outside of the winery, they are sold at Fairgrounds Discount Beverages in Timonium and at Adega Wine Cellars and Cafe in Silver Spring.

Brasfield, who buys his grapes from Quail Vineyards in Manchester, urges consumers to view a visit to a winery in the same way as a trip to a farmers market.

"Think of it as buying a head of lettuce from the guy who grew it," he says.

Slack Wines and Vineyards, located in the Southern Maryland town of Ridge, not only grows its own grapes but takes "a different approach" to selling wine, says owner Maggie O'Brien.

Slack sells its wines in 56 stores and restaurants, including Freeland Wine & Spirits in northern Baltimore County, Salazon Chocolate Co. in Sykesville, and eight stores and restaurants in the Annapolis area. The winery also offers one-day delivery by special arrangement with FedEx, O'Brien says.

Legislation passed in 2011 finally allowed Maryland wineries to direct-ship within the state, so O'Brien decided to embrace online sales, she said.

Aside from a large number of still wines, Slack produces four sparkling wines: White Shoals, Pink Shoals, Rocky Shoals and Southern Roots. Prices range from $14.99 to $37.99.

"People are surprised — almost always — by how much they like sparkling wine," says O'Brien, a former chemist.

The best-selling of the quartet Slack offers are Pink Shoals, with its coral color, and Rocky Shoals, a light red sparkling wine that is unusual outside of Europe and Australia, she says.

But O'Brien personally favors a split of Southern Roots with a bar of sea salt-and-pepper dark chocolate made by Salazon, which is also a gift package offered by the winery online. She calls the pairing, which she first sampled on Thanksgiving, "the finest little meal I've ever had."

O'Brien says her son, Tucker Grube-O'Brien, who is also Slack's winemaker, tells her that young adults are embracing more sparkling wine outside of special occasions and are especially likely to accompany brunch at a restaurant with a Mimosa, a mixture of sparkling wine and orange juice.

"Young urbanites tend to be the ones changing the perception of sparkling wine as a specialty drink," she says, even though it "pairs well with almost everything, from seafood to pasta."

Atticks, of the wine association, who is 38 and a married father of two, concurs. He estimates that he drinks sparkling wine at home with dinner at least once a month.

And although it might be trending now, Drew Baker of Old Westminster Winery doesn't foresee his family's first and only variety of sparkling wine being mixed into a cocktail. At $35 a bottle, their 2012 Blanc de Blancs is too good — and too expensive — to dilute, he says.

"The bubbles bring the flavors to life and lift the wine up," he says. "It's intended to be enjoyed on its own."

Old Westminster's sparkling wine was just released Dec. 1. In fact, the Westminster winery, which also sells still wines, only opened for business in June. It is run by three 20-something Baker siblings: Drew and his two sisters, Lisa and Ashli.

Nearly all of the fledgling winery's 30 cases of sparkling wine have been sold, a debut that Baker called "as well received as we could have imagined."

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