Drink local, think regional.
Stare at a winery map of Virginia long enough to let your focus blur, then in your mind’s eye superimpose the state’s topography. Notice how the dots signifying Virginia’s 220 wineries coalesce loosely around two geographical features, the largest group running along either side of the Blue Ridge Mountains — though mostly to the east, an area known as the Piedmont plateau — with a smaller number of wineries hugging the Chesapeake Bay.
Add a Maryland map above that, and you’ll also see two major groups of wineries: along the Catoctin Mountain range and the rolling hills of central Maryland’s Piedmont, and in the coastal plain of southern Maryland around the Chesapeake Bay. If by chance you have a Pennsylvania winery map on hand, you’ll notice a smattering of vineyards in the lower Susquehanna region, from Gettysburg to Harrisburg and York, cradled by the mountains as they curve north and east toward the Lehigh Valley. The two groupings, mountain and bay, join at the northern end of the Chesapeake and stretch into the coastal plains of Delaware and southern New Jersey, as though Earth were doing a half-moon pose to the east.
With that holistic image in mind, you might no longer think of Virginia wine as distinct from Maryland’s or Pennsylvania’s. Instead, you might see an emerging Mid-Atlantic wine region that follows the natural contours of the terrain. Increasingly, the region’s best winemakers are thinking along the same lines. State boundaries, after all, are irrelevant to a grapevine, though they are often impenetrable barriers to distribution of the final product.
Maybe it’s time to expand our concept of local wine country.
Allegro Winery in Brogue, Pa., southeast of York, is just about as far from the White House as Barboursville Vineyards, northeast of Charlottesville. Black Ankle Vineyards, in Mount Airy, is only a little closer to the White House than Linden Vineyards, near Front Royal. Those wineries share more than a proximity to Washington: Their terroirs are influenced by the same geographical boundaries, namely the mountains to the west and the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay to the east.
The arc of the mountains can be followed even farther south, through North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, where Childress Vineyards and others are producing elegant blends from Bordeaux grape varieties. In the mountains of northern Georgia, Frogtown Cellars and Tiger Mountain Vineyards are producing delicious wines from tannat, viognier, cabernet franc, petit manseng: grape varieties familiar to fans of Virginia wine.
“If the state boundaries weren’t there, we’d be looking at a very different grouping of wineries,” says Ed Boyce, who co-owns Black Ankle Vineyards with his wife, Sarah O’Herron. “But we’ve naturally gone to thinking of Virginia as distinct from Maryland because of consumer loyalties as well as state and local funding.” Virginia has, at least until recently, been more supportive of its wine industry than has Maryland.
Boyce has approached other winemakers in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania with the idea of forming a regional alliance of wineries that are setting a high standard for quality. The idea is to share knowledge and raise consumer awareness of the best regional wineries, regardless of which state they happen to call home.
Boyce credits Mark L. Chien, a viticulturist with the Penn State Cooperative Extension, for gathering like-minded vintners together for occasional seminars and discussions on how to improve their viticultural techniques and winemaking. The idea of formalizing an interstate group grew out of those information exchanges.
“Since we all have trouble branding the quality wines of our individual states, we thought it might be more effective to take a geographical region, in this case the northern Piedmont plateau, which has similarities from [Charlottesville] to the Lehigh Valley, and identify that as a fine-wine region based on climate and geophysical similarities,” Chien explained in an e-mail.
There is already at least one similar effort afoot in Virginia: Steve and Jean Case, of AOL fame, have launched a “Best of Virginia” campaign through their Madison County winery, Early Mountain Vineyards, to promote Virginia wineries they say are setting a high quality standard in the Old Dominion. It’s a consumer-oriented effort, designed to convince Virginians that they have something special growing in their back yard.
The multi-state perspective emphasizes similarities that extend across state lines. As the eastern U.S. wine industry has matured, vintners have realized that the red Bordeaux varieties — cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot — perform best on steep, southern-facing slopes with poor soils. The slopes provide protection against spring frost, as the cold air slides downhill, and allow summer rains to drain quickly from the vineyards rather than dilute the grapes. Cooler mountain temperatures let the grapes retain acidity, for balance. Such sites produce many of the red blends that have gained popularity in recent years, made by wineries such as Linden, Glen Manor and RdV in Virginia and Black Ankle and Boordy in Maryland. Pennsylvania’s Allegro continues to improve on a track record dating to the 1970s and is being joined by newcomers Octoraro Cellars and Karamoor Estate.
Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md., north of Baltimore, makes wines using grapes from throughout Maryland. His top-line red blends are made from grapes grown at South Mountain Vineyard, just north of Burkittsville in central Maryland, and his top whites are from grapes grown near the vineyard in Hydes, a short drive north of the Baltimore beltway, where the rolling hills of the Piedmont meet the maritime influence of the Chesapeake.
“The growing season is about 10 days to two weeks longer on each end in the Blue Ridge than here,” near the winery, Deford says. “That’s why the reds do better out there.” Closer to Baltimore he says, “we get a cooling influence from the bay” that helps white wines maintain their aromas and acidity.
Joseph A. Fiola, a University of Maryland viticulturalist who maintains experimental vineyards throughout the state, says that fleshier white wines not known for acidity and aromatics perform best in vineyards closer to the Chesapeake. Although wineries around the bay are on flat land, near sea level, they at least have sandy soils that drain water efficiently. And without the day-night temperature swings that favor mountain grapes, “the reds that will do best near the bay are grapes that hold their acid,” Fiola says, naming Italian varieties such as barbera and negro amaro, as well as Portuguese touriga and French carmenere. Petit verdot, valued throughout the region for its color and acidity, also does well near the bay, Fiola says.
Fiola’s advocacy of those unconventional grape varieties already may be bearing fruit. Slack Winery in Ridge, Md., near where the Potomac joins the Chesapeake, produces a silky barbera and a juicy sangiovese. Across the Potomac on Virginia’s Northern Neck, Ingleside Vineyards is winning acclaim for its petit verdot and rosé of sangiovese.
“Every year, there is a growing critical mass of wineries who think we can do something special someday,” says Carl Helrich, owner and winemaker at Allegro. “And on some level I think we owe it to our region to make folks aware of what they can call their own. As winemakers, we all know who the others are, but just because my customers like my wines doesn’t mean they have found Black Ankle’s.”
McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine. The 2013 Drink Local Wine conference will be held in Baltimore on Saturday at the Tremont Suites Hotel, with a tasting of leading Maryland wines at Camden Yards. For information and tickets, visit www.drinklocalwine.com/conference.