Monday, January 25, 2010

Crumbling Rock vs. The World

The folks at Black Ankle Vineyards (Mt. Airy, Maryland) invited me to a blind tasting on Sunday. The theme was "Crumbling Rock '07 vs, The World" - at which they pitted their Bordeaux blend against similarly priced Bordeaux blends from France, California and South Africa. It is the third such event they have staged and it speaks volumes about their goals and aspirations. Oh, by the way, their Crumbling Rock '07? It won, with 18 out of 30 first place votes (runner-up wine received 8 first place votes)!

The wines, in order of group preference (approximate retail price):
  1. Black Ankle Vineyards '07 Crumbling Rock - Mt. Airy, Maryland ($45)
  2. Girard '06 Artistry - Sonoma County, California ($45)
  3. Bennett Lane Winery '05 Maximus - Calistoga, California ($45)
  4. Cain '05 Concept "The Benchland" - St. Helena (Napa Valley), California ($55)
  5. Sur Luchtel '06 Mosaique - Napa Valley, California ($38)
  6. Chamberley '07 Philosophers' Stone - South Africa ($28)
  7. Chateau Clerc Milon '06 - Pauillac (Haut-Medoc), France ($48)
  8. Chateau Fonbadet '05 - Pauillac (Haut-Medoc), France ($45)
A few observations. Ed and Sarah (Boyce and O'Herron, partners in Black Ankle and marriage) do these tastings to learn as much as to show off what they've accomplished. While '07 Crumbling Rock is only the second vintage ever produced at Black Ankle, they have been at this thing for eight years, having spent the first six toiling in the vineyards just to produce their first crop. Their goal was to produce world class wine at Black Ankle, but it wasn't until their first tiny harvest in '05 that they had any proof that their hard work might amount to something. It's not like they had many serious benchmarks they could measure success against that were actually grown and produced in Maryland. If locals find that statement harsh, well, sorry, but it's essentially true. And it's not like they're doing anything radical compared to other great estates around the world. Black Ankle would look familiar to any well-traveled wine professional. They simply started with a different viewpoint, and asked a different set of questions of a different group of experts than anyone else in Maryland had started with.

So, with just two vintages under their belts, Ed and Sarah wanted to find out how they would stack up against the best wines from around the world that they could find in local wine shops. I would expect, knowing that they're always drinking wine from other places, always curious about what's going on out there in the big wine world, that they had an inkling they'd do ok in a comparative tasting with their peers. Still, to stick their necks out in public, wow, I am amazed at their courage - or is it audacity? I mean, sure, I believe they do these tastings to learn and to grow, but it would be nice to have their wine, their baby, show well. Their first such tasting, pitting the '06 Crumbling Rock vs. the world, netted them 3rd place - they were happy with that (last place would've sucked for sure) and they learned a lot. The second event matched their '07 Leaf Stone Syrah against some heavy-hitting Syrahs/Shiraz - Leaf Stone took 1st place! And they netted another first yesterday. Bravo! Three Cheers!

Now, let's step back a second and put this achievement in perspective. By great wine estate standards, Black Ankle is a newborn. When I was tasting yesterday I noted that '07 Crumbling Rock - which I failed to identify - certainly did not exhibit any characteristic that would mark it as "Maryland" wine. On the other hand, I didn't actually guess that it came from anywhere. For me, terroir, that sense of place in wine, is a wonderful thing. Crumbling Rock doesn't show it because it can't yet - the vines haven't been in the ground long enough to develop roots in the parent rock which will draw in components that will eventually give the wine a sense of being from a particular place.

Ed also made a critical point in his comments - '07 is a bit of a freakish vintage in Maryland, with virtually perfect weather conditions throughout the growing season. He likened it to 2005 in Bordeaux (I would add Burgundy here as well) - a great growing season, if not typical. The result of that perfect weather of course, is lots of ripeness - grapes with a particularly high percentage of sugar - which makes for wine with high alcohol content. While '07 Crumbling Rock shows no heat - in other words the alcohol is not out of balance with the terrific fruit - it is a "big" wine, and not necessarily what Ed and Sarah want to make on a consistent basis. This is wonderful news to me. It reminds me of the first time I tasted Black Ankle's '08 whites; it was at their tasting room, with Sarah. '08, in contrast to '07, was difficult to say the least - extremely rainy and overcast, it was tough to imagine getting even a marginally ripe crop. Tasting through the white wines, however, erased any worries. The wines ranged from 11.5 to 12.5% alcohol for varietals (Albarino, Viognier, Gruner Veltliner, Chardonnay) routinely found carrying 13-15% alcohol; yet they were bursting with varietal character and freshness and persistence - all the attributes of complete, brilliantly made wines. Nothing was lacking.

I left the winery that day wondering how in the world they could have learned so much, so fast. Next week I hope to get a glimpse of Black Ankle's 2009s. Can't wait.


Blogger Thomas said...

Neither can I. Wait for the 2009s, that is. I'm exceptionally curious as to how this producer will evolve--progress?--over the next several years, and there's nothing like dealing with yearly variants to test the adage that one should buy wine based more on producer than vintage. It took me a few years, but I now believe this with all my heart--and pocketbook. Great producers on the whole really do make good wines, even in tough years, and generally excellent wines in the best of seasons.

January 26, 2010 at 12:39 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Hi Mitchell...your comments on the Maryland wine scene begged a response: they are not "harsh" but are,in fact, Spot On, as they say. I am entering my 17th year in the local wine industry, 11th as wine maker. During this time, I have had many locally produced wines I thought were good, very good, great. Unfortunately, there have been way too many that were not. (I count those I have made in both categories.) Reasons abound for bad wines made, some legit, others not, but the end result, I believe, always led to such a negative reaction towards the local scene. It hasn't helped, either, that we all have succumbed to the sweet wine crowd, which dominates the Made in Maryland wine market, in order to survive economically. It seems like that is all anyone who really knows wine expects when he/she sees a Maryland label. Frankly, it frustrates me to no end as it does, I'm sure, nearly every other local wine maker.
I have always felt that it needn't be like this, that truly excellent wine can be made here and on a consistant basis. I believe what Ed and Sarah have done is give a clear view of what is possible. All wine makers in this state should take notice. I know I have, even if it means starting over at page 1. It really is worth the effort to make truly great wine.

January 29, 2010 at 9:09 AM  
Blogger Mitchell Pressman said...

Chris, thanks so much for your comments. It means a lot coming from you, and it gives me hope for the future of high quality Maryland-grown wine. I believe Ed and Sarah are anxious to have company as they strive to make Maryland a place known for its world class wines.

January 30, 2010 at 9:48 PM  

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