by Paul Vigna
Catoctin Breeze Vineyard is settled in the hills along Route 15 in western Maryland, a few miles north of Frederick and in the vicinity of Camp David.
But with each passing year, the rural Maryland producer is easier to find on a map. That’s been aided by a series of awards: gold medals in the state’s Governor’s Cup in 2017 and 2018 and consecutive Best in Show finishes in the Comptroller’s Cup. Both are in-state competitions.
“We’ve been sitting back for seven years now kind of waiting to get this thing going like this,” winemaker Mike Lentini said. “I’m feeling good about where we’re at. We have great product, we have a real good crew right now, we have some really neat innovation in this barrel fermentation program.”
Called Vinification Integrale, the program Lentini makes reference to enhances the optimization of vineyard block selections through barrel fermentation. Voytek Fizyta, a winery partner, and son Adam, the winery’s general manager, saw how the program worked while they were visiting Italy and heard about its popularity among some high-end producers and decided to try it last year on a barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon.
“The difference in taste was very noticeable, as the barrel-fermented wine gave the wine a much more integrated feel, more body, and overall more balance,” Adam said. “We held an event with our wine club comparing the two styles, and the barrel-fermented was the unanimous favorite.”
That was enough positive response to convince the winery, and this year they’re planning to apply the same process to all their estate Cabernet Franc and Syrah; all told, 34 barrels. “We’re pretty excited,” Lentini said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into this thing. As far as I know, we’re the only ones doing something like this, at least on this scale, around here.”
“The French firm OXOline introduced the idea in 1999 and three years later won a trophy for innovation at the Vinitech trade show in Bordeaux”, said Sebastian Lane, a managing partner and co-owner. “While the product has evolved and a second version was introduced, its basics remain the same.”
“A freestanding rack, with each barrel independently supported on rollers, allowing installation and removal of any barrel on the stack without disturbing any of the others, free access to each bung for sampling, topping, and additions, as well as the ability to barrel ferment and clean the barrel in place.” Lane said. “A more recent example of the incremental improvements we make over time would be the ability to rotate full and empty barrels using a handheld drill instead of manually rotating.”
Lentini said rather than doing punchdowns they come through three times a day and roll each barrel for a minute each. That lessens the need to open the barrels, reducing the amount of oxygen introduction. Using the oak, he said, adds more complex tannins to the wine and quickens the aging process. “We had a six-month Cabernet Sauvignon that was drinking like it was a year old,” he said. “It was just amazing. And the depth and the layers; there was this velvety texture to it. It was just beautiful.”
This system is widely used in the United States and across Europe and has elevated its profile in Australia and South Africa. “Interestingly, with the rise in popularity in craft beer and spirits, we are seeing a lot of inquiries for the version we offer for that market,” Lane said. He noted the company just completed major installations in Cognac, Martinique, and Scotland for the spirits market and is gaining interest from a similar market in the U.S.
Despite the initial cost, Lane noted, “over time the cost savings primarily in labor more than offset the capital outlay. That fact coupled with the architectural design element that OXOline brings with it have made it quite popular.”
Lentini said he’s already shown off the system to several visiting winemakers, no doubt drawn in part by the success of Catoctin Breeze in just its first six years of business. The winery opened to the public out of a small, open-air barn on its property in 2013 and moved into its present tasting room four years later.
Using largely estate grapes, it offers a range of dry whites – Chardonnay to Vidal Blanc to Sauvignon Blanc – to dry reds – Cabernet Franc to Merlot to Barbera to several blends – and also produces several meads. Many of its wines have names attached to music, such as Intermezzo Vidal Blanc, Oratorio Barbera, and Concerto Bordeaux Blend. Those acknowledge the affection that owners Voytek and Alicja share for classical music, not only through the names but through its labels, which show a silhouette of a different composer from the classical era.
Many of the winery’s accolades have been earned with its Cabernet Franc, which accounted for both Comptroller’s Cups. Lentini called it Catoctin Breeze’s flagship wine and noted it has planted three different blocks of Cab Franc. “It’s a wine I’m feeling really good about,” he said.
“I think we’re going to get everyone turned on to Maryland wine,” Lentini continued. “I’ve said it before: Our main goal from the very beginning was quality wine and we feel like we achieved that. The owners wanted it to be one of the more premier wineries, not necessarily one of the larger. I think we’re meeting their expectations.”