US winemakers hope for 'grand cru' after heat wave

In winemaking, a hot, dry summer is part of the stuff that dream vintages are made of. And with the Washington area baking in record-breaking temperatures this summer, winemakers in the little-known vineyards of Maryland and Virginia think this could be the year that puts them on the map.

"We're anticipating a great vintage this year," said Carol Wilson who, with her husband Fred, has been making wine since 1979 at the Elk Run vineyard in Mount Airy, Maryland, an hour and a half north of Washington.

"We had a lot of rain in the spring, which gave our water table a lot of water. Now it's hot and dry... We're very excited about this vintage."

High temperatures coupled with little rainfall not only stress people but also vines, making them work harder than usual to draw nutrients from the soil, which produces a higher-quality grape.

And the older the vines in a vineyard, the deeper the roots go, allowing them to produce even better wine in a dry, hot year.

At Elk Run's 24 acres (10 hectares) set on the rolling - and this year sun-drenched - hills in Maryland's Frederick County, some vines are 31 years old.

"We could have fabulous reds because, if the season continues, we will get high sugar levels and nice ripeness and maturity," Wilson said as she walked through Elk Run's vineyards.

On the other side of the Potomac River from Mount Airy, at the Philip Carter Winery in Hume, Virginia, the oldest wines are just 13, but the vineyard is also looking forward to a good, if not great, year.

"Just the amount of fruit on the vines makes this a significant year," said Pierre Agra, a French wine expert who has worked in the Loire valley, Bordeaux, and Provence and will spend the next two years managing the winery.

"We have a lot of fruit and the quality is very good, so this will be an important year," he said.

"But what will really determine if we produce great wines - in the case of reds especially, wines that you can lay down - is the period we're in now, between the veraison, or the onset of ripening, and maturity."

The key veraison period in a grape's life coincides with hurricane season in the Washington region, which could bring heavy rain to the vineyards.

Too much rain in the coming weeks could cause the grapes to be attacked by mildew, which would dash vintners' and consumers' hopes of a great year for wine in Maryland and Virginia.

But as of mid-August and the annual blessing of the grapes at the Philip Carter Winery, the rain was holding off.

"We have a really fine chance of having an excellent harvest," said Mark Parsons, the head of hospitality at the rural Virginia vineyard.

Wine lovers, meanwhile, weren't waiting for the 2011 vintage to hit the shops, and were actively training their palates to discern the grapefruit overtones of Virginia roses and the blackberry in Maryland reds.

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