BROOKEVILLE, Md. – The drought conditions plaguing most of Maryland’s farmers have been a boon to the state’s grape growers and wine makers, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The state’s 60 vineyards are expected to harvest about 600 tons of grapes, exceeding the average annual harvest of 450 tons, the Department of Agriculture said.
And while quantity is up, so is quality.
This year’s grapes are very likely to produce an “extraordinary vintage,” said Robert Lyon, co-owner and vintner of the Catoctin Winery, located in Montgomery County.
Ann Milne, who with her husband Jerry owns the Burkittsville Vineyard, located in the Catoctin mountains near the Appalachian trail, agreed. “Drought is a wonderful thing for the grapes,” she said.
Grapes grow best in a hot, dry climate — something Maryland had in abundance this year, Milne said.
The drought forces grapevines to push deeper into the soil, soaking up more nutrients than they otherwise would, said Eric Fiore, who with his family co-owns the Fiore Winery in Pylesville. The result, Fiore said, are grapes with the higher alcohol and acid content that determine wine’s character.
Lyon noted that the dry weather also helped produce smaller grapes: “The smaller the berry, the more intense the fruit.”
But it will take several years for the favorable conditions to play out in the market.
Bert Basignani, owner of Basignani Wineries in Sparks, expects his earliest wine from this summer’s grapes “won’t reach market until at least a year from now.”
And Lyon, reflecting on the time it takes to age some types of wine, said his Chardonnay will be ready in about two years, followed in four years by a Cabernet Sauvignon.
From 1986 through 1996, state wine production has been volatile, statistics show. Highest production occurred in 1992, with nearly 70,000 gallons. The lowest year was 1990, with only 36,000 gallons produced.
This year’s harvest could have lasting implications.
Past perception has been “the [Maryland] industry is too small and lacks consistency,” Fiore said. But the quality of the grapes now coming off the vine “reinforces the notion that quality wines can be made in Maryland,” Fiore said.
Fiore also noted that wine makers are planning a much higher percentage of wines made with individual grape types. Lower quality wines are often grape blends — blush is an example, Fiore said. The only threat to the successful completion of the 1997 season — harvesting ends at the end of October — is rain, which can burst the grapes, Fiore said. -30-