Maryland wines, ready for their close-ups

Columnist October 11, 2011

The vineyard on the outskirts of Burkittsville has stories to tell.

“We’ve found musket balls here before, but never an arrowhead,” Rob Deford says as I examine the quartz relic his son Phineas has discovered in the vineyard on a sunny September morning. Its tip and edges only slightly dulled by a sojourn in the soil, the arrowhead speaks of centuries of history along the Appalachian Mountains, long before modern man decided this would be a good place to plant grapes.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

The vineyard, which covers 20 acres on a 114-acre farm straddling Gapland Road in western Frederick County, was the site of early fighting in the battle of South Mountain, as Union troops overwhelmed a Confederate vanguard to take nearby Crampton’s Gap in September 1862 and push Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops back toward a bloody and fateful showdown at Antietam.

More recently, and much less dramatically, the vineyard has played a role in the rise, fall and modern resurgence of Maryland wine.

It was first planted to vines in the mid-1970s to supply red grapes to Catoctin Vineyards. Catoctin was part of a heyday of Maryland wine in the ’80s, along with wineries such as Montbray, Byrd, Boordy and Basignani. Then Montbray, Byrd and Catoctin ceased operations during the tough economy of the early 1990s. As neighboring Virginia’s wine industry thrived, Maryland’s languished, hampered by a prevailing belief that it is impossible to ripen wine grapes in the humid, rainy Mid-Atlantic climate.

The vineyard had been abandoned for two years when Rob Deford, the owner of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md., leased it. He was looking for a source of red grapes along the Piedmont ridge, where the growing season was 20 days longer and less rainy than at his own plantings farther east in Baltimore County. But the site, which he named South Mountain Vineyard, suffered from disease and poor rootstock, and the vines were widely spaced in a manner still common along the East Coast. Deford began a piecemeal restoration, but after nearly a decade he realized something more drastic was needed if he was to produce the wines he desired.

“We were hitting a glass ceiling in the quality of our wines,” Deford says, citing an “anemia” afflicting his reds. He brought in vineyard consultant Lucie Morton in 2005, and on her advice he decided to rip out the old, established vines and replant the entire vineyard, using different rootstocks and grape clones and increasing vine density from 660 per acre to 1,663. (Advocates of dense planting say it helps control vigor in the vines and promotes even ripening of the grapes.) He hired a full-time vineyard manager, Ron Wates, in 2006 to oversee the project.

“We were wrestling with so many legacy issues that the way to make improvements on the high-end wines was to act as if we were a new winery starting from scratch,” Deford says.

Deford, 60, is now more than halfway through a 10-year project to transform Boordy’s vineyards in Frederick and Baltimore counties, as well as its entire winemaking program. South Mountain Vineyard today is a patchwork, with plots of three- and four-year-old vines alternating with areas of newly planted ones.

Those older vines produced their first crop in 2010; the wines are now resting in barrel and will be released next year as Boordy’s Landmark series of reds. (I tasted the unblended wines in July and found them ripe, concentrated and elegant.) A 2009 chardonnay reserve and 2010 pinot grigio made from grapes grown in replanted vineyards in Baltimore County have already been released and are excellent.

Deford also invested in new equipment, such as sorting tables and fermentation tanks. Construction on a new winery building in Hydes is scheduled to begin Nov. 1. These are significant expenditures for the cost-conscious businessman who built Boordy into a successful enterprise after his family bought the winery in 1980. He still keeps his eye on the bottom line and chafes at the need to restrict yields by dropping half of the grape clusters on the ground in the weeks leading up to harvest.

“That’s the hardest thing to do,” he says, kicking a discarded bunch of shriveled cabernet franc as he shows me around South Mountain Vineyard. “But the alternative is living with [crummy] wine for two years.”

When he launched Boordy’s transformation to modern viticulture and a quest for quality, Deford was feeling the heat of competition.

Maryland’s wine industry has mushroomed, from 12 wineries in 2000 to 52 today, with 15 more in the licensing process, according to the Maryland Wineries Association.

One upstart winery in particular has raised the quality bar for Maryland wine. When Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron started Black Ankle Vineyards, near Mount Airy, in 2002, they were unusual for Maryland. They sought out land specifically for grape growing rather than replanting an existing family farm. They looked for poor, rocky soils on relatively steep slopes that would provide good drainage in rainy vintages. And they planted a whopping 1,895 vines per acre, nearly triple the 2001 state average of 668 vines. (The current state average, according to the MWA, is 938 vines per acre, suggesting that newer wineries are following the dense planting model.)

Their approach has shown immediate results, winning Black Ankle the Maryland Governor’s Cup for best wine in the state three out of the past four years, most recently this year for a multi-vintage red blend called Slate. Their white wines have been so successful that they sell out within months of release. This year, Boyce and O’Herron planted an additional 20 acres of vines, which should effectively double their production when the new vines begin producing a crop in the 2014 vintage.

Everything Boyce and O’Herron did at Black Ankle was designed to achieve maximum ripeness of the grapes. “We have to get beyond the belief that we can’t ripen grapes here,” Boyce said. He was speaking in the context of this year’s rainy harvest, expressing confidence that wineries with densely planted vineyards are in better shape to produce ripe wines, even if the flavors might be diluted compared with the sunnier vintages of 2010 or 2007. That’s a story to be told in two years, when the wines are released.

Black Ankle made a statement as Maryland’s first “estate” winery, meaning it would make wines only from grapes Boyce and O’Herron grew on their property. Maryland wine’s dirty secret is that much of it is made from grapes shipped in from other states, such as California, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Those states aren’t selling their best grapes.

“We are fruit-poor at the moment,” says MWA executive director Kevin Atticks. Vineyard acreage has not kept pace with the growth of wineries, which need wine to sell while promoting their venues for tourism, weddings and concerts. But that trend is changing, and growing demand for local foods is fueling interest in local wines.

“Even wineries that didn’t focus on buying Maryland fruit are feeling the pressure of the market wanting local ingredients,” Atticks says. “If someone’s buying local wine, there’s an expectation that it’s made with local grapes.”

Northwest of Hagerstown, Knob Hall Winery is following the estate model, with 60 acres planted to vines. Montgomery County’s Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyards is now using its own fruit exclusively for its estate-labeled wines. In Washington County, Big Cork Vineyards planted 22 acres this year and has room to expand on rolling hillsides just across Crampton’s Gap from Boordy’s South Mountain Vineyard. Having lured winemaker Dave Collins from Breaux Vineyards in Loudoun County, just across the Potomac in Virginia, Big Cork seems poised to make a big statement for modern Maryland wine.

In southern Maryland, Slack winery is producing spicy, rich wines from Italian grape varieties grown in St. Mary’s County. Port of Leonardtown Winery is a cooperative of several local farming families with the motto “Local Wines From Local Grapes.” So Maryland wine is not only becoming better, it is becoming more Maryland.

“If you’re going to make a high-end wine, it’s extremely difficult to have other people grow it for you,” says Boordy’s Deford, who is decreasing his winery’s reliance on out-of-state grapes for his mid-level wines and moving his Landmark series of higher-end wines toward the estate model.

“As the state’s oldest winery, many people have tasted our successes and our failures,” Deford says. “A wine region needs to be reconsidered all the time.”

With Boordy’s resurgence, Black Ankle’s example and a host of new wineries pursuing quality, the next chapter in the story of Maryland wine should be delicious.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com; follow him on Twitter @dmwine.

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