Discovering Maryland Natural Wine

Earlier this week, Pineapple D.C. – a networking group for women in the food community who want to connect with the “good food” movement – hosted an interesting talk on natural wine with Lisa Hinton, the winemaker for Old Westminster Winery in Maryland.

That’s right. I said Maryland. And I said natural wine.

I must admit, despite knowing that wineries exist in Maryland, it’s not something that I’ve actively explored. Not to mention, I’m a bit skeptical when someone mentions natural wine in a region not heavily experienced with vineyards and wine. Good natural wines rely so heavily on its terroir.

(While there are a million definitions of natural, and much controversy within the industry, we can probably all agree that with “minimal intervention” – no matter what the definition of minimal may be – the wine must rely heavily on the quality of the grapes, which comes from the right kind of land and climate, right?)

Does that really exist in Maryland?

At the end this two-hour discussion and tasting, Old Westminster Winery convinced me the answer is Yes.

Old Westminster Winery is a bit different than other small wineries I’ve been introduced to so far. It wasn’t so much a love of wine that sparked the three twenty-something siblings to start making wine, but a love and loyalty for family. When their parents threatened to sell the farm they grew up in, the trio searched for a solution to hold on to the property in Westminster, Md., (about an hour northwest of Baltimore) and grow it into a viable business.

Lisa graduated college with a chemistry degree, while her siblings focused on business and marketing.  After a bit of research, winemaking seemed like a  logical use of their combined talents.

While they’ve planted and harvested grapes on their own property since 2011, Lisa said about 60 percent of their fruit comes from other Maryland vineyards. In the future, that may change a bit thanks to the purchase of the Burnt Hill property in Clarksburg, Md. The land was sought out for its particular slope and soil composition.

Lisa said they’re planning on farming the land using biodynamic methods, in part because they believe in giving as much to the land before starting to take from it.

The winery has focused on making natural wines since its inception. Lisa said she defines that as low intervention wines that express both the place and time that they came from. She believes both natural and added sulfur are necessary in making wine to ensure it doesn’t turn to vinegar, and acknowledges other winemaking techniques are needed from time to time to combat mildew, mold or other issues that can vary vintage to vintage.

Wineries in Maryland have existed for decades (I even once wrote about one for The Washington Post almost 14 years ago), but it’s really been this century, when the numbers have increased significantly (take a look at the  Maryland Wine Association website, which counts about 70 established wineries between 1945 and 2014. You can see in this historical timeline, how the numbers of wineries have grown).

Perhaps the growth is hinged on the increasing success of Virginia wines? Lisa noted that the mid-Atlantic has similar climate conditions as Bordeaux, which makes growing varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon viable. Old Westminster Winery has also had luck Alberiño (a white Spanish grape) and even bringing Barbera (an Italian variety) into their red blends. The Maryland Wine Association also noted Maryland can be compared to the climates of Portugal, Spain, Southern Italy and Greece (that would make sense why the Alberiño and Barbera do well!).

In Old Westminster’s quest to make natural wines, its break-out stars are the pet nats. Wine writer Jon Bonné recently called their Albariño version an outlier among America’s great pet nats.

During the talk, we tasted one made from Syrah grapes. The cloudy peachy pink juice’s fruit rose above its effervescence backbone, making it a little too easy to drink. The other two wines poured that evening were the 2014 Anthem red blend, with a mix of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and the 2014 Channery Hill, which blends the same three grapes, with some Barbera. Both wines had a nice amount of dark fruit, a bit of anise and some slight minerality if you paid really close attention to what you were sipping. Channery Hill was slightly lighter with a bit more acid (I’m guessing we can thank the Barbera for that).

Old Westminster’s production numbers per variety are low: No more than 100 cases of each wine are made. And most are sold through their wine club or people or visit their tasting room. Experimentation remains a top value for the young winery. For example, this coming vintage, they plan to leave their wines unfiltered. If it doesn’t work the way they like, Lisa said, they’ll go back to using filters next year. Their mission is to learn how to best express the Maryland terroir.

I asked Lisa if there are any winemakers or wineries that inspire their work, but she wouldn’t answer with any specifics. She said while there are many wines she enjoys drinking, she knows attempting to mimic any of those traits would be futile to creating wines distinctive of time and place.

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