Catoctin Breeze Vineyard: Honest, Earnest Wines from Maryland

Catoctin Breeze Vineyard isn’t your typical winery. One of the first things you notice is that there are no stainless tanks in the winery. Zero stainless tanks. They started with plastic puncheons, and it worked for them. It still works for them. So, no stainless tanks, at least not now. Maybe later. Maybe.

For their first vintage, they used all new American oak on their reds, and they liked the result. So, every vintage since then, they’ve used new American oak. They’ve tried a few French and hybrid barrels, but they like the American ones. And since they liked the effect of new barrels the first few years, they plan to stick with an emphasis on new wood. Maybe they’ll wind down the percentage of new oak in the future. Maybe later. Maybe.

Voytek and Adam Fizyta of Catoctin Breeze Vineyard

The Fizyta family opened Catoctin Breeze in time to make 2012 their first vintage. It’s a remarkably honest place. They admit what they know, what they don’t, and talk about their wines in ways that comport with reality. The first time I tasted their wine was in the spring of 2017 when they poured three wines during TasteCamp 2017: Maryland.

The first pour was a Chardonnay, which I was told would be “Chablis-like.” I roll my eyes when I hear this from anyone other than a Chablis producer because 999 out of 1000 times the wine has zero Chablis qualities. But Catoctin Breeze’s chardonnay did – it had some of that nervous verve on the finish. Nicely done, Catoctin Breeze. Honesty prevails.

I was surprised by their decision to use new oak on every red wine primarily because it’s a very expensive decision, and there are other ways to impart oak’s influence without using barrels. Liquid tannin and wood chips come to mind as means to impart oak qualities without taking on the enormous expense of new barrels for each vintage.But that wouldn’t be a very honest form of winemaking. While they do chip a bit during fermentation in those plastic puncheons, the oak influence on their reds is completely authentic.

One reason for this new oak usage is that Catoctin Breeze is rapidly scaling production. In 2018 they anticipate bottling 1800 cases. Plans for 2019 and 2020 include increases to 2500 and 3000, respectively. When you ramp up that quickly, you have to buy barrels, and since they won’t risk purchasing used barrels, the trend of new oak will continue for the foreseeable future. Most of their reds see 10-18 months in barrel, though the reserve Syrah sees more thabn twenty. The white wines are pressed in whole cluster with stems, while the reds get whole berry fermentation, sometimes with some stems.

Catoctin Breeze Vineyard Chardonnay tasted during TasteCamp 2017: Maryland.

This brings to mind a question I hope to explore more this year: tannin development. My recent trip to Napa reminded me that out in the warm West, tannins are something to manage, sometimes even something to mitigate. On the cool East Coast, they’re something to yearn for, something to develop to their full potential.

While all Maryland wineries have to come to grips with this challenge, heavily oaking wines doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. I’ve had Maryland wine that has been heavily oaked that didn’t work. Some of it has even come from vanguard producers, and it’s something I catch – and dislike – early on. Catoctin Breeze is doing a lot to develop tannin, and in the winery they’re relying on oak. To my palate, that’s normally a recipe for rebellion. However, this time there was no such protest. I liked the wines. It worked.

In large part this is because Catoctin Breeze is doing something most other Maryland wineries I’ve experienced have eschewed: they’ve embraced the typicity of the grapes they produce within the context of the climate and vintage. While barrel notes were present in the red wines I tasted, so too were flavors and structural elements classic to each variety. Overall, the package was appealing in large part because it’s honest.

We began with the 2016 Estate Chardonnay ($25) – the one meant to be Chablis-esque. The wine was barrel fermented and came out medium bodied but with a level of crispness in the acid that was striking but not jarring. The broad palate hits on lemon curd, baking spices, white pepper, white flowers, honeysuckle and starfruit, while it gets a bit spicy and limey on the finish. 89 points.

Next was the 2014 Adagio ($30), a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The dark nose offers cherry, boysenberry, cinnamon, candied orange and sweet tobacco. The medium body is balanced with moderate acid, while the flavors are predominately earthy and herbaceous. The fruit is mostly red and pleasantly tart, and it has a saline finish. 88 points.

The 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc ($36) is a lovely example of a variety that can shine in Maryland. The nose wafts herbaceous, slightly green notes with smoke and dark fruit. It’s medium bodied nicely balances lean acidity with polished tannin to produce a broad mouthfeel. Flavors hit on cherry, Herbs de Provenance, tobacco leaf, mild pepper and orange zest. 91 points, value A-

From there we went to the 2015 Estate Syrah ($34), whose nose offered candied cherry, violets, roses and blood orange zest. The body, again medium in stature, has bright acidity. Tar and smoke flavors frame semi-tart cherry, cranberry, huckleberry, and orange while baking spice and rosemary join the party a bit late. 90 points.

The final red was the 2015 Oratorio Barbera ($38), my favorite of the line-up. The nose wafts high-toned aromas of crushed SweeTart and cherry, but also some dark elements like mushroom funk, wet soil and under ripe blackberry. It’s the fullest bodied of the bunch, but has nice acid that is impressively integrated with dense, polished tannins. The fruit is juicy red and blue varieties that go nicely with sweet tobacco and lavender. 92 points.

At this point I asked for a splash of Vidal Blanc, which I believe ought to be a focus of Maryland. On balance, it’s been the truest expression of any white variety I’ve had as I’ve tasted through the state – the most accurate production of its type. Most Chardonnays and Sauvingnon Blancs and many Albarinos from Maryland taste like they might as well be from California or New Zealand or Spain or Argentina or wherever – just not Maryland.

Maryland Vidal Blanc tastes like Maryland Vidal Blanc. The 2016 Intermezzo Vidal Blanc ($20) offers a nice dose of acid that is full and cutting but very pleasant, while a slightly bitter flavor – dandelion came to mind – was the leader of the bunch, which also included stone fruit and chalk. 89 points.

We finished with a house-made mead. Yes, you read that correctly: mead. The Fizytas are mead fans, and when they started the winery they needed to find creative ways of generating additional revenue, so they went mead. Of the three they make, we had the 2010 Amber ($23), which is made of honey and spices (vanilla, allspice and cloves) and saw five years of aging in American oak. It’s incredibly delicious, tasting not just of the added spices but also caramel and mint. It even has some of that Tawny-ness quality to it. I’m not sure how to score it, but it’s a must-try.

During the winery tour, we were poured two white wine barrel samples, the 2017 Viognier and Albarino. Both were very pretty and promising, and like the rest of the wines that day, true to their type and terroir. That seemed to be the theme of the visit and the wines. Catoctin Breeze has a nice location along Highway 15 about twenty minutes north of Frederick. They are among the best wines I’ve had from the Mid-Atlantic, and well worth a visit for anyone in the area.

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