Ask for Maryland wine. That’s not just the slogan of the Maryland Wineries Association (MWA), it’s also really good advice. Particularly if you’re asking for some of the top-rated wines in the state, all made with Maryland fruit and produced right in our own backyard. Though Maryland hasn’t historically been known as a wine-making hot spot, our reputation is growing—as is the number of wines produced here. Maryland is home to a number of different micro-climates, and many different types of soil (compare the Eastern Shore to Cumberland, say); and as anyone who frequents local farmers’ markets knows, we’ve got a wonderfully long growing season and plenty of rich agricultural land. So, as MWA Executive Director Kevin Atticks put it at Tuesday’s Governor’s Cup Wine Competition, “When people used to say ‘Maryland wine’ it was almost an accusation. But these days, it’s actually become a question.” Our answer to that question: Yes, please!
The over 60 Maryland wineries that have popped up over the years are now producing enough varieties of wine at a high enough quality to put us on the map. Local wineries form wine trails, host events (everything from tastings, to rock shows, to Zumba classes) and altogether have a $60 million economic impact on the state every year (take that, Grand Prix!)—bringing jobs to rural areas, and helping to support local agriculture. This Tuesday, we had the pleasure of attending the Governor’s Cup Competition and sampling some of (okay, all of) this year’s winners. It was tough work tasting the very best local wines, in so many categories, but hey, someone’s got to do it.
One of our favorite winners came from Port of Leonardtown Winery. The winery is actually a cooperative, owned and operated by 18 different grape growers. Unlike single family-owned wineries, the process of envisioning, creating, and marketing a vintage in a cooperative model can require lots of group input and negotiation, rather than the single vision of one master winemaker. But whatever these folks are doing is clearly working.
Their two winning wines (Autumn Frost 2010 and McIntosh Run 2011) were both unusual, highly drinkable, and with a real Maryland feel. The McIntosh Run, for example, is an apple wine, rather than being made from grapes. Though Port of Leonardtown had always made traditional (grape) wine, local neighbors started to insist that they start making fruit wines. Patrick Isles, one of Port of Leonardtown’s winemakers told it this way: “An older lady who lives nearby said ‘You can’t make wine in southern Maryland and not make a fruit wine!’ People, particularly in rural parts of the state, have memories of growing up and their grandmother or someone making blackberry wine and things like that. So this was our way of responding to that.” Their Autumn Frost uses grapes that are kept on the vine until the last possible second (November, usually). Then they’re harvested and turned into a fabulous dessert wine comparable to an ice wine. Isles says we’ll never be able to have true ice wine in our climate (our frosts never last long enough) but the results from a November harvest are nothing to sneeze at.
Taking the medal (and trophy) for Best in Show was Black Ankle Vineyards’ Crumbling Rock 2010. This red wine showed off what the winery is known for—particularly smooth wines that show off the winemaker’s knack for balance. Melissa Schulte from Black Ankle described the ease of creating great wines locally: “If you’ve got a good vineyard, you’ve got the good fruit. And with the good fruit, you’re going to be able to make great wine.” So it makes sense that they use 100% estate grown grapes. Though Black Ankle has only been around for a few years (their first vintage was available in 2008) they’ve sprung onto the scene with gusto and been more than well received. Two and a half years ago, they started their wine club, which has grown to 1400 members from around the country; and certain vintages sell out only two to three days after becoming available. If there was any doubt that Maryland wine was becoming “a thing,” let Black Ankle’s popularity allay such doubt.
Maryland’s First Lady, Judge Katie O’Malley presented the Governor’s Cup awards at the competition. A proud advocate for local wines herself (she serves them at the Governor’s House), Mrs. O’Malley announced the winners in each class and spoke with enthusiasm about Maryland wine’s growing popularity. As each winemaker came to the podium to accept their trophy and pose with the First Lady, their pride in their accomplishments was evident. In fact, in speaking to each of the winemakers, it was clear that these are people who absolutely love what they do—and why shouldn’t they? Wine is one of the hallmarks of any celebratory occasion. Creating such a thing from the ground up, and sharing that with others who appreciate traditional craft and local flavor in some of Maryland’s most beautiful rural areas? It’s a life it would be hard not to be flat-out exultant over. And we’re just glad we get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
For more information about Maryland wines and wineries, visit www.marylandwine.org.