“There will never be another tasting like this,” Al Spoler said by way of introduction. “This cannot be repeated.” That’s because many of the wines on the table before us were the last of their kind.
Spoler, host of Cellar Notes on Baltimore radio station WYPR, convened the invitation-only tasting last month at the Center for Maryland Agriculture in Cockeysville, north of Baltimore. About a dozen of the Free State’s winemakers assembled to taste their history: Maryland red wines of vintages ranging from 1981 to 2006. The idea was to see how Maryland wines hold up over time, and to reminisce about an era when Maryland first showed promise for making world-class wine.
Bert Basignani brought several vintages of his Basignani cabernets, and Rob Deford offered older Boordy wines. Mike Fiore of Fiore Winery regaled anyone within earshot about the virtues of chambourcin. Chris Kent of Woodhall Wine Cellars shared his single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from vineyards no longer producing grapes. There were cabernets and a pinot noir from Elk Run Vineyards in the 1990s, courtesy of Neill Bassford. Bob Lyon brought some wines he’d made at Catoctin Vineyards in the 1980s. Joe Fiola, the University of Maryland’s viticulturist, poured wines from his cellar, along with insight on the state’s best vineyard sites, then and now.
The treasures were cabernets from Montbray Wine Cellars and Byrd Vineyards, their labels pockmarked with mold and decay from having been forgotten in someone’s cellar for three decades. Those two wineries once symbolized Maryland’s potential for producing world-class wines; now they are long gone. Byrd’s vineyard near Mount Airy, once a promising site for cabernet sauvignon, became a housing development.
Their wines were fascinating. The 1982 Montbray Cabernet Sauvignon was brick red in color yet still bright and alive on the nose and palate, with spice-box aromas of clove, pepper and fenugreek. Then, about an hour later, it fell apart. The Byrd wines, especially a 1983 cabernet, were equally spicy, if less elegant.
Not all the wines withstood the test of time. “There’s good fruit here, but I’m reminded that we keep these wines too long,” said Boordy’s Deford.
The winemakers spoke with optimism about the wines they are making today, using new techniques and knowledge they didn’t have a decade or two ago. The 2006 vintage cutoff for this tasting was imposed to ensure that the wines had some age, but also to separate the old from the new period of Maryland wine. The middle of the past decade saw the advent of wineries such as Black Ankle and Sugarloaf Mountain, as well as Boordy’s ambitious effort to replant its estate vineyards according to modern winemaking standards.
“Today we say wine is made in the vineyard. But back then, we tried to get the most out of the wine by emphasizing the tannin” during production, said Bob Lyon, who made wine for Byrd as well as at his own Catoctin Vineyards.
Modern winemakers strive to ripen the grapes fully by dropping green fruit in the vineyard and sorting out anything underripe at harvest. “The tannins are still there, but they are in a softer flavor profile,” Deford said. “It’s tannin management rather than the sheer amount of tannin.”
And what about timing the harvest, Spoler asked. “How has your philosophy of winemaking in Maryland changed?”
“In the old days, we’d harvest before the birds or the hurricanes,” Deford quipped.
“What has changed is our ability to get to harvest,” said Ray Brasfield, winemaker at Cygnus winery and the original winemaker at Woodhall Vineyards. “The healthier you can get fruit to veraison” — the point where the grapes turn color and begin to ripen — “increases the chances you’ll have healthy, ripe fruit at harvest.”
Deford agreed. “We have evolved to the point now that if you are managing a vineyard well in Maryland, you are at the height of viticulture,” he said. “If you have a great site, you can make great wine. If you don’t have a good site, you’ll be fighting every vintage.”
Everyone left that day with a greater appreciation of Maryland’s viticultural history, as well as anticipation for a future retrospective tasting, when wines being made today will tell the next chapter of the story.