Maryland makes wine? The land of crab cakes? Questions like these arise whenever I bring up the subject of Maryland wine. American wine is rooted in California, the Finger Lakes — and if we venture to the wild side — Virginia. But what many people don’t know is that Maryland has been making wine for centuries.
According to the Maryland Wine Association, the earliest instance of winemaking in the region was recorded in 1648. Charles Calvert, the colony’s governor, planted Maryland’s first European grape varieties on the bank of St. Mary’s River in 1662. The state now includes more than 100 wineries and over 1,000 acres of planted wine grapes. With four main grape-growing regions, Maryland includes three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): Linganore, Catoctin, and Cumberland Valley.
Wine drinkers in the Mid-Atlantic region, with their interest in buying local, are the main consumers of Maryland wine. But that is starting to change. Since the state is located next to Washington, D.C., it is easily accessible as an extended tourist destination for visitors and locals, and is slowly gaining ground in other areas as a serious wine-producing region. More and more, the Free State’s wines are earning acclaim, with Mazzaroth Vineyards, Robin Hill Farm & Vineyards, and Thanksgiving Farm Winery winning medals at the 2020 American Wine Society Commercial Wine Competition.
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Leslie Frelow, founder of Vino 301 Wine Concierge, is dedicated to introducing people to the state’s wines. “Maryland wine is coming of age and in the last five years, the wines have shown exceptional range, depth, and complexity,” she says. “Maryland is really an agriculture state, and the viticulture side has vastly improved, resulting in better-quality wine.”
Sarah O’Herron, proprietor of Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, believes the state’s climate and terroir provide great potential for the Maryland wine industry. “Since much of the state sits at the base of the ever-eroding Appalachian Mountains, we have big areas with great hillsides and wonderfully rocky, lousy soils — many of which have the potential to be good vineyard sites,” she says. “Drainage is very important, and Maryland has a plethora of well-drained soils.”
Although the region can be hot and humid at times, certain parts of the state are cooler than others, resulting in various climates for grape growing. The result is a wide range of unexpected grape varieties such as Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, the French hybrid Traminette, and even southern Italian varieties such as Barbera and Sangiovese. Climate change is affecting terroir around the world, and with many regions contemplating new vineyard practices, Maryland is no exception.
To differentiate itself from other regions, Maryland grape growers push the envelope on what the land can produce. It doesn’t have to compete with other regions. That is the beauty of wine; every region produces its own interpretation of the land.
“When we set out to start making wine in Maryland 20 years ago, we spent a lot of time researching who was growing great grapes throughout the world and trying to figure out what we could learn from them,” O’Herron says. “While there are no simple answers in wine-growing, that is what makes it fun.”
Curiosity and fun can be hard to come by in wine. We like what we like. The U.S. is the leader in wine consumption, and it is time for us to extend our palates to lesser-known states. Instead of comparing Maryland to other wine regions, step outside the box and sip with an open mind. While getting Maryland wines can sometimes be a challenge for those outside the region, many wineries are able to ship out of state and regulations for receiving wine have been relaxed due to Covid-19. That makes this a great time to explore new regions and your own palate.
For the adventurous drinker, here are five Maryland wines that are well worth a taste.
This 100 percent Syrah is smooth, with tannins that develop over time but aren’t overpowering. Food is this wine’s best friend, especially something earthy like mushrooms or a steak. Average price: $56
Technically, this is a piquette — a low-alcohol wine made from the leftover grapes during a second press. Chambourcin is added to the white and red piquette, which results in a thirst-quenching wine. Average price: $18
This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot with velvety notes of chocolate and spice. Aromas of tobacco and black cherry give the wine depth and character. Average price: $31
A medium-bodied wine with notes of pear and white peaches, this is a layered white that’s perfect for winter. Average price: $27
A crisp and delicious white wine that shows aromas of white flowers, along with flavors of crisp lemon and mouthwatering green apple. Average price: $23