Welcome to Episode 47, focusing on a state that I think has one of the best flags in the country: Maryland. In this episode, we will be focusing on the 2017 Vin Doux Naturel from Old Westminster Winery, located in Westminster, MD. This particular bottle was one of three chosen by the winery as part of a #Winestudio event for the month of June. Mind you, all three of the wines involved in the series were fantastic; especially the Cabernet Franc. I’ve also been to their tasting room before and have picked up bottles and cans from this winery specifically for this podcast… which may well still appear in future episodes, or I may just drink them on my own without sharing.
All that being said, the opportunity to review a dessert wine and talk on the podcast about the intricacies of making dessert wines along with the various styles thereof was too good a chance to resist. And so, here we have the 2017 Vin Doux Naturel, a dessert wine made of 100% estate-grown Valvin Muscat (a cross between Muscat Ottonel and the hybrid Muscat du Moulin, for the record) which was fermented with wild yeasts and fortified during fermentation using neutral grape spirits distilled from estate grapes. This particular vintage is made in a way reminiscent of wines coming from the Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC in France.
Here, as with the Valvin Muscat from Old Westminster, fermentation is stopped by the slow addition of up to 10% of a 190 proof (95%) grape spirit. This additional alcohol basically slowly kills off the yeast, as most yeasts cannot stand an overly high concentration of alcohol. Port, as well as other similar fortified wines, are also made in this fashion. (Madeira is, too, but is then literally baked in hot steam rooms, or historically on the decks of ships; sweeter sherries are made this way also, but then develop a living coat of yeast known as flor while aging in barrel. I really should find American vintages made in both styles, as they are really fascinating wines to talk about and drink, but I digress.)
One can also create a sweet wine that isn’t fortified by halting the fermentation before completion through chilling the wine to the temperature where yeast goes into stasis, and then sterile filtering. A second way of creating a sweet, desert-style wine is by adding sulfites to the wine at a high enough level where the yeast cannot survive, and then sterile filtering. Sterile filtering is important for the production of sweet wines of this sort, because, without filtering, any yeasts that survive will feed on the residual sugar. This will either make the wine ferment to dry in the tank, or worse: if bottled, the CO2 created by the yeast as a result of fermentation can cause corks to pop or bottles to explode from the pressure.
A final way of making a sweet wine that could qualify as a dessert wine is to back-sweeten the wine after it has finished fermenting to dry with a sugar solution or honey. The TTB classifies a dessert wine as any grape wine containing over 14% but not more than 24% alcohol by volume. Citrus, fruit, and agricultural dessert wines must be further identified as to the fruit that was used.
I’ve rambled a lot about dessert wines here, and how to make them, so I’ll have to be brief about the history of the wine industry in Maryland here. The oldest continuously operating winery in the state is Boordy Vineyards, located in the rural region of Hydes, Maryland. This winery was bonded in the 1940’s by Philip & Jocelyn Wagner. Philip Wagner is one of the most important figures in the history of American wines that you’ve probably never heard of, as he quite literally wrote the first major book on the subject: American Wines and How to Make Them. The book was revised and republished as Grapes Into Wine, and it became the definitive book on winemaking in America for decades.
Old Westminster Winery is much newer in comparison (planted first in 2011, and is rapidly expanding with the acquisition of Burnt Hill), but is part of the rapidly expanding industry in Maryland which now contributes an estimated $50 million dollars annually to the local economy. Today, Maryland has over 40 wineries, and three AVAs thus far: the Catoctin AVA (named for an Algonquin word meaning “speckled rocks”) is located in Frederick and Washington Counties, while the Linganore AVA, part of the Piedmont Plateau, includes parts of Frederic and Carroll Counties. Lastly, the Cumberland Valley AVA we met in passing extends from Pennsylvania into Washington County in west-central Maryland.
As mentioned above, this wine was provided by Old Westminster Winery for the #Winestudio event. As far as I’m aware, this wine is not available to be purchased by the general public yet, but I plan on acquiring another bottle when it does become available.