Wineries in Maryland have been around since Colonial times. The Colonial governors started growing grapes for winemaking in the 1600s, with European varietals being planted along the St. Mary’s River in southern Maryland. The indigenous American grapes were unsuitable to use as they made fairly bitter wines. It took years to find European grapes that would thrive and produce good wines in the mid-Atlantic, a struggle that continues to this day.
As the locals tried, often in vain, to keep pinot grigio alive through our winters and to get cabernet sauvignon to ripen fully, Marylanders tended to plant hybrids, grapes crossbred to be more suited to our fickle climate. Chambourcin, a red grape, and vidal blanc are the hybrids that now dominate the plantings in Maryland. Wines from these grapes are abundant, as are non-grape fruit wines and sweet dessert versions made with berries and the hybrid grapes.
Additionally, many wineries sourced grapes from as far away as California in order to produce wines with known varietals in commercially viable quantities. Over time, winemakers sought out and found microclimates and terroirs suited to the more familiar grapes, and now local wineries produce cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, chenin blanc and some outstanding cab francs and petit verdots.
The 2010 Maryland Winery Modernization Act allowed wineries to sell on- and off-premises, changed production standards and enabled sales with a Maryland state license, leading to a fourfold increase in the number of wineries in the state, from 25 in 1999 to more than 100 today. Most of the wineries you can visit today came into being after the law was passed; more wineries opened after another law was passed in 2013 allowing tastings and bottle sales at farmers markets. Wineries that predate the laws have added tasting rooms to their existing operations, and newer wineries have been built from the ground up with tasting rooms and banquet facilities. These range from a small, yet charming, converted room in a dairy barn to a modern cork-themed facility on a hilltop that would feel at home in the Napa Valley.
Here are eight wineries within an hour’s drive of Bethesda that are worth visiting.
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson has figured out which grapes work best in this region. The hybrids the winemakers still plant are blended smartly, and they have moved on from the sweet wines that are so prevalent at Maryland wineries. If they would only refurbish and upgrade their small, dated tasting room, it would make for a first-class visiting experience.
The first vines at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard were planted in 2004 and wines were first produced two years later. I remember those early vintages as thin and green, with the best wines the product of purchased California fruit. The rich soil at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain is a wonderful site for grapes, and the wines have grown up. They are not going to fool you into believing you are sipping a first-growth Bordeaux, but these are quality wines and represent a good value overall.
Owner Emily Yang studied wine at the University of Adelaide in Australia and took over at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in 2014. Manolo Gomez has been head winemaker since 2012.
Highlights: The oaked and unoaked chardonnays are true to what chardonnay should be—bright and full-bodied without a ton of malolactic fermentation, which saps the bright, tart flavors. We also drank a reserve bottling of the vineyard’s 2013 chardonnay, which showed that these wines can age nicely; it’s bursting with fruit and has a soft mouthfeel. The whites, Penelope and Siren, showed the best uses for the hybrid grapes. Blended with several grapes to complement any one grape’s features and help mask weaknesses, they are lovely offerings. Sugarloaf doesn’t offer a multitude of wines, and only three reds—a cab franc and two Bordeaux-style blends; this allows a focus on making quality wines as the vineyard dictates. The cab franc was as good as any around, with big peppery flavors and just enough tannins to provide a firm backbone, and the EVOE! is a clear winner, a full-bodied cab and petit verdot blend with nice oak and soft tannins.
Prices: Tastings are $10; bottles range from $19.95 to $42.95.
Food: Cheese and crackers are available, and food trucks are present on weekends starting in May.
Extras: Live music on Saturdays and Sundays, April through October.
18125 Comus Road, Dickerson; 301-605-0130; smvwinery.com