Steve Melchiskey has a dream. “I truly believe there’s a future for 10 to 12 good wineries in southern and coastal Maine that use only grapes grown on their properties.”
Melchiskey’s Maine Coast Vineyards (distributed in Maine by Mariner Beverages) is the first, and he’s working hard to create a culture that nourishes more.
But it’s going to take time. Melchiskey and his wife, Nanci Kahn, have worked hard for 12 years on their Falmouth property to produce the current 2011 vintage, their fifth. But in any great wine region – from Meursault to Maipu, Marlborough to Mosel – time is only one crucial factor.
The other biggie is culture and a certain attitude. Maine doesn’t have that yet.
This is because other wine makers here are using grapes shipped from New York, California and elsewhere. Sure, the wine is “made” in this state, but let’s call that what it is – a science experiment. Some of these wines are palatable, but they’re only “Maine wines” if an alcoholic sparkler made in Reims with Chardonnay grapes shipped from Sonoma is “Champagne.”
Melchiskey’s vision of wine – formed when he was 17 and worked the Riesling vineyards of the Mosel Valley for the legendary 1976 vintage – is European. It’s place-based farming.
“I could bring in barrels of Stag’s Leap Cabernet or Merlot from Napa,” he told me as we gazed out on his Hurricane Road vines, “and ‘make Maine wines.’ But that’s not what I want to do. For me it’s about keeping our agricultural heritage, and doing what the land itself is asking us to do.”
This isn’t just lip service. Melchiskey’s 100 percent organic vineyards overlook slopes that were cleared in the 1640s by an enormous hurricane (hence the road’s name), and ever since have formed a vibrant agricultural valley.
Melchiskey and I bonded over the radical prospect first put forth by Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” – plants call people into service to do their will on earth. Wine makes itself in the vineyard, and grapes suited to a particular soil and climate use humans to carry out some of the tasks necessary to effect a transition from fruit to sacred beverage.
This is terroir, and Melchiskey is adamant – there’s terroir in Maine.
As an example, Melchiskey spoke of how MCV uses grapes from Melchiskey’s Falmouth property and from SuriPaco Farm in North Yarmouth. The St. Croix grapes from each parcel yield amazingly distinct flavors in the zippy MCV red – a light, Beaujolais-ish cranberry from North Yarmouth, and an earthy, distinctly Dolcetto-like barnyard profile from Falmouth.
All MCV wines are field blends where the many grape varietals are grown side by side and are harvested and crushed together.
The names have old-school East Coast street cred, but are not immediately familiar to most of us – La Crescent, Aurora, St. Pepin, Foch, Leon Millot and others.
“Most of these don’t make great wines on their own,” Melchiskey said, “but they have fascinating dialogues with each other. And they’re right for here, and they represent here. And that’s what this is about.”
Melchiskey thinks the future for Maine wine is in white and ros?ather than red, since no red grapes with any real tannins are able to grow in this climate. (I don’t entirely agree. I like the chilled 2008 red I tasted just yesterday, as well as the newer vintages. But I’m a sucker for light-bodied, quaffy Beaujolais-style reds.)
The Maine Coast Vineyards 2011 Ros?$17), adorned with a stunning label designed by Kahn, an accomplished local artist, is now available. It’s my favorite of the MCV wines. It’s a deeper red, savory expression with a terrific cranapple tartness offset by flavors of garden tomatoes, stewed fruit and (Melchiskey, Kahn and I agreed on this, though we also agreed some people might not like the association) beef broth.
The MCV white is unique. I tasted the current vintage out of tank, before full integration and before sugar had been added (at this point, in Maine, ya gotta add some sugar if you don’t want the top few layers of skin ripped off your tongue). With a Muscat-like nose hinting at apricots, it’s surprisingly dry and earthy. To me, it has suggested tastes of white pepper and seashells.
I also tasted one of Melchiskey’s earlier experiments, a 2008 whole-cluster-pressed off-dry white that looks and presents like a so-called “orange wine.” People I’ve tasted it with were divided, but there’s no denying that it’s exciting that a wine like this is being made in Falmouth, Maine.
It’s an amber-hued, distinctly mineral, light-marmelade-tinged wine balanced with a rose-petal, meadowy freshness.
It’s not for drinking every day, but like all of what Melchiskey is aiming to do in his fields, it’s thrilling that it exists. And it’s good.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at email@example.com.