“Anyone who says Maryland does not have good wines has not been to a Maryland winery recently,” Dr. Joe Fiola told me firmly last week.
Fiola, the viticulture specialist for the University of Maryland Extension, would know. He’s spent nearly 20 years at the school as a grape and small fruit specialist, testing new vine varietals and helping Maryland vineyards — literally — put down roots. He’s also a staunch defender of the state’s wine scene, which is still struggling to shed a more than 30-year-old stigma.
“Historically, almost every state on the East Coast has battled with that because our traditional wineries in the 1970s and ‘80s were starting at ground 0,” Fiola added. “Back then, a lot of the wines were being made with American and hybrid varietals. Grapes that most people don’t associate with premier quality wines.”
Since then, the industry has grown in more ways than one. Maryland recently reached 100 wineries, according to Fiola, with more expected to emerge in the next few months alone. The state has more than a thousand acres of grapes, and new varietals are still being explored. Fiola cited several Eastern European hybrids now grown at Big Cork Vineyards in Rohrersville, which are engineered to resist cold weather and disease. Six Wicket, a new vineyard in Myersville, is in the process of planting Teroldego grapes, an Italian varietal known for producing deep red wines.
Rachel Lipman, the assistant winemaker at Loew Vineyards in Mt. Airy, is also in the process of putting down new vines. This spring, she and her family are planting 600 grafts of Zweigelt, an Austrian grape varietal known for producing tart, fruity reds. The wine spoke to the family’s Eastern European heritage, Lipman said (her grandfather, Bill Loew, left Poland during World War II), but it’s also been successfully cultivated at several vineyards in Pennsylvania. That sort of proven success is important for Maryland, where harsh winters and humid summers present particular challenges for growing grapes.
In honor of Maryland Wine Month — celebrated in March — we put together a primer for better understanding the state’s grapes, from the challenges of cultivation to the best-tasting breeds. If you’ve ever had a question about Maryland wine, we aim to answer it. Think of it as an easy guide for drinking more locally.
How Maryland wine began
Technically, Fiola said, the history of grape cultivation in Maryland dates back to the 1660s, when Cecil Calvert — the second Lord Baltimore — ordered his son to survey around 300 acres of land in St. Mary’s County for a vineyard. It was one of the earliest efforts to cultivate wine grapes in America, where colonists craved the varietals they knew back home. (Thomas Jefferson tried the same thing at Monticello roughly 145 years later, putting down more than 20 varieties of French and German cultivars.)
Most early efforts at grape cultivation failed quickly, Fiola added. Popular European vines weren’t bred to withstand the harsh winters and humidity of the mid-Atlantic region, and native grapes just didn’t produce high-quality wines. As a result, viticulture in Maryland stalled until 1945, when Philip Wagner opened Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore county.
Wagner became well-known for introducing hybrid grapes to Maryland and to America at large. He spent years developing successful crosses between French and American vines, creating grapes that could withstand cold and humidity and still produce high-quality wines. Viticulture in Maryland was also influenced by the work of Dr. Konstantin Frank, Fiola said, a New York horticulturist who developed new techniques for growing European Vitis vinifera vines in cold climates.
Those technological developments are the reason why Maryland vineyards can grow hybrid varieties like Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin, as well as Old World vines like Cabernet Franc.
Why is it so difficult to grow grapes in Maryland?
Growers in Maryland face two primary difficulties, according to Lipman — cold winters and wet summers.
Freezing temperatures create the obvious challenge of dead or damaged vines. Most Old World grapes begin sustaining damage at 0 degrees Farenheit, reducing the yield at harvest. When temperatures dip to -5 or lower, those same vines tend to die off.
“So, you might spend thousands and thousands of dollars establishing those grapes and have to start over after one harsh winter,” Fiola added. “Because you’re either losing crops or losing the vines completely, in which case, you have to replant. And then you’re waiting another three to five years to get back into production.”
The region’s characteristic humidity can be equally challenging. More moisture leads to more diseases, including powdery mildew, downy mildew, and botrytis (also known as gray mold). In cases of extreme rain — including last year — vines can rot or wash away. Grapes can burst from too much moisture absorption. Even during better seasons, Maryland growers are spraying fungicides two to three times more often than vintners on the West Coast, Fiola said. At the same time, though, they’re also not dealing with drought or wildfires — some of the biggest challenges to vineyards in California.
Does Maryland have different wine-growing regions?
Yes! According to Fiola, the state is divided into four distinct growing regions. There’s the Western Mountain region, which extends westward from Washington County. Frederick falls under the Piedmont Plateau, which also spreads through Baltimore and Cecil counties. Anne Arundel and Prince George’s County are included in the Southern Plain region, and the Eastern Shore extends southward from Kent County.
Wine tasting is subjective, of course, but both Fiola and Lipman said it is possible to taste distinct terroirs from each of the four regions. Eastern Shore wines tend to have more ripeness and less acidity, Fiola said, while wines from the Piedmont region are more reminiscent of complex, Old World varieties.
“I hate to say that Piedmont is the best, but I think most people would agree that it’s easiest to produce some of the best-quality grapes in that region,” he added. “If you look internationally to France and Italy, it’s reminiscent of some of the great grape-growing regions of the world.”
What are the major grape varietals in Maryland?
Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin are the state’s biggest red wine varietals, according to Fiola, largely due to their cold hardiness. As for whites, both he and Lipman listed Vidal Blanc and Chardonnay, with a growing emphasis on Pinot Gris.
That’s not to say that there aren’t more unusual varietals across the state. Albariño is growing more ubiquitous, according to Lipman, and growing exceptionally well. More vineyards are also experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera, two red grape varieties.
Fiola is always on the lookout for new and historical varietals that could thrive in Maryland. Petit Verdot is another grape that’s been producing exceptional wines in Maryland, he said, and more vineyards are starting to cultivate Grüner Veltliner — an Austrian grape that produces dry white wines. Locally, Linganore Winecellars recently planted several rows of Saperavi, a Georgian grape that first gained national recognition in the Finger Lakes region.
Are there any wines you can’t find in Maryland?
Zinfandel is a nationally beloved grape, but it just wouldn’t grow well in Maryland, Fiola said. Cold temperatures would quickly damage or kill the sensitive vines.
Malbec is another challenging varietal, he added. A handful of Maryland growers have tried cultivating the grape, but most lost their vines in the particularly cold 2013-2014 growing season.
How can you tell if you’re buying a wine with grapes grown in Maryland?
The easiest way, according to Fiola, is to look at the label. Any bottle that’s labeled as a “Maryland wine” has to made from at least 75 percent in-state fruit.
Supply and demand is another challenge facing Maryland winemakers. “For every ton of wine we’re producing, we’re still importing close to a ton of grapes because our wine production greatly exceeds our grape production,” Fiola said. “We just can’t keep up.” Most vineyards try to import grapes from nearby areas, but it is possible to visit a Maryland winery that’s using grapes from as far away as Argentina or Chile. The easiest way to know is to ask.
What are the best Maryland wines to try?
Lipman listed the Barbera Reserve from Port of Leonardtown Winery as one of her state favorites, as well as the sparkling Vidal Blanc from Crow Vineyard in Kennedyville. Locally, she likes the Chardonnay from New Market Plains, as well as the Blue Roan Chambourcin from Hidden Hills Vineyard in Frederick.
Fiola was loathe to list specific wines (“I think I’ll get in trouble if I list a favorite,” he said), but noted several vineyards in Frederick County that have attracted statewide or national recognition. Catoctin Breeze Vineyard in Thurmont has won gold in the Maryland Governor’s Cup for its 2016 Barbera and 2015 Cabernet Franc. Linganore Winecellars has won for its Vignoles and Petit Verdot. Knob Hall and Big Cork, both in Washington County, have also won gold in the same competition over the last two years (one of Big Cork's hybrid varieties, the white Russian Kiss blend, won best in class in 2018).
Farther east, but still in the Piedmont region, Old Westminster and Black Ankle Vineyards are also known for producing consistently good wines, Fiola added. Black Ankle has been recognized most recently for its Albariño and Terra Sol dessert wine, while Old Westminster won gold in 2017 for its premier Chardonnay.