Thursday, July 30, 2009

Guest Article: Developing a taste for Norton Wines

Think back on items that you had to develop a taste for in the past. Coffee, hopefully unsuccessfully tobacco products, or maybe single malt Scotch? Fortunately, acquiring a taste for Norton wines is a bit simpler, if you give yourself the luxury of visiting different vineyards, tasting various examples and discovering which wineries you prefer. I have collected so far a database of 150 vineyards producing Norton wines in twenty states! Somewhere out there in the Midwest or Southeast is that perfect Norton wine to match your preferences. If you are unable to visit these vineyards, possibly you will be enticed into ordering directly some noted references found in this article.

The costs, quality, and types of wines have been interesting to observe over the past 35 years. The places of selection also play into this, be it a liquor store, grocery store, big box discount stores or now, ~ a local vineyard. With today’s explosion of vineyards in all 50 states, the choices become mind boggling. With this explosion comes gifts from friends, to include wines that you have never heard of before. All this rambling brings us back to the subject of the Norton wine.

Our first gift of Norton wine, also known semi-incorrectly as Cynthiana, came with ‘family connections’ from a New Haven, Missouri vineyard, Robller Winery. We were so lucky that this first bottle inked our curiosity into the subject of Norton. It was years later, learning that the Norton grape was also present in Virginia, we decided to investigate Norton wine possibilities. Passing through Virginia on a trip north; we took the time to explore nine vineyards offering Norton wines. A few years back there were only a handful of vineyards growing Norton grapes in Virginia, but today there are 23 wineries sporting this wine (*vineyards visited):

Abingdon Vineyard & Winery *( Abingdon, VA
Belle Mount Vineyards (( Warsaw, VA
Bluemont Vineyard *( Bluemont, VA
Burnley Vineyards *( Barboursville, VA
Casanel Vineyards ( Leesburg, VA
Castle Gruen Winery ( Locust Dale, VA
Chrysalis Vineyards *( Middleburg, VA
Cooper Vineyards *( Louisa, VA
Dry Mill Winery ( Leesburg, VA
DuCard Vineyards ( Madison County, VA
Horton Vineyards *( Gordonsville, VA
Keswick Vineyards *( Keswick, VA
Misty Ray Winery ( Harrisonburg, VA
Mountain Cove Vineyards ( Lovington, VA
Paradise Springs Winery ( Clifton, VA
Peaks of Otter Winery ( Bedford, VA
Potomac Point Winery ( Stafford, VA
Rappahannock Cellars ( Huntly, VA
Rockbridge Vineyards *( Raphine, VA
Valhalla Vineyards ( Roanoke, VA
Veramar Vineyard ( Berryville, VA
Virginia Wineworks ( Charlottesville, VA
Winery at La Grange *( Haymarket, VA

However, the taste of these Virginia Norton wines from the east coast did not resemble what we remembered from the Missouri gift of years past. All interesting, but oh so different. Maybe this was the best state to start our Norton tastings as the examples varied wildly, and it was easy to tell which selections we preferred. On a scale of ‘5’ being the best, we found mostly 2s and 3s, but more importantly a Norton that gingerly bumped the “4” marker.

Before going any further, it is important to state with all Norton wines, do not base your tasting on a freshly opened bottle of Norton wine. All Norton wines need to breathe for an extensive amount of time. Here again, as with most wines, do not base your tasting on your first sip since the second paused sip will settle your senses, and by your fifth-ninth-twelfth-etc. sips, you will be exuding an unquestionable Norton grin. Likewise, take advantage of Norton blends which combine the characteristics of this varietal grape, yet create a balance of complex flavors. To name a few sites which we enjoyed:

The two Virginia heavies in Norton wine production would be Horton and Chrysalis vineyards. I would say that Horton's mission is to introduce to the general public a good Norton wine at a fair price and to this they unquestionably succeed. Chrysalis, on the other hand, wants to produce Norton examples with a full range of tastes and cost. Both of these vineyards are fine examples of the east coast Norton varietal. Our favorite east coast Norton wines on this exploration turned out to be from two small farm-like venues: Cooper Winery, a fine dry red Norton, and from Pennsylvania's Stone Mountain Wine Cellars, a delightful “fruity” Norton. Both were wonderful variations on a theme of Norton grapes. As for a soft and easy tasting table-wine Norton, don't pass up Abingdon Vineyard's Norton.

Obviously, it is time for my wife and me to return to Virginia and try the offerings of other Norton wineries from this state. You will quickly develop your own Norton palate preferences while visiting the many geographical vineyard settings from the coastal rivers to the Shenandoah mountains. Wander the beautiful Virginia countryside for yourself and I promise that you will find several Norton surprises.

On to Missouri where the choices become harder. Virginia has now 23 out of 133 wineries producing Norton wines. I found Missouri has 49 (another report has 53) wineries producing Norton wines! One statement made from a Norton wine web page was not to compare a Norton wine to any similar wine from Europe or from California. Likewise, I would say not to compare Virginia Norton wines to Missouri Norton wines as they are produced under different climatic and soil situations. The same grape, but grown in two different agricultural scenarios.

We found several large producers of Norton wines in Missouri; as, Crown Valley, St. James, and Stone Hill. Crown Valley has an enormous wine production program making various Nortons in tremendous volume. St. James Winery has a similar mission as Virginia’s Horton Winery in that they want to educate and introduce to its public good, affordable wines. Don't let these affordable $6 prices dissuade you into thinking that these are only "cheaper" wines. On the contrary, their $10 middle priced Norton and sometimes available $15ish “Reserve” Norton wine are bargain wines and stand up well to the best-that-Missouri has to offer. To tell you our favorite Missouri Norton wine becomes a hard chore. Let me list a few with comments:

Chandler Hill Vineyards may be the new kid on the block, but what a taste explosion they laid introducing their Norton "Savage" wine. After participating in a dinner tasting of six notable Missouri Nortons at St. Louis' 2008 Norton Wine Festival, this came out an overall first at our table from publicly available selections. This is an interesting winery that is proud of its historic surroundings and goes to great lengths to preserve their history.

Blumenhof Winery produces an award winning Norton wine they have cleverly named "Original CYN". Unfortunately they ship directly only to MO & CA, but I have found that the Missouri Mercantile wine distributor will secure this wine for shipment. Order quickly because they always sell out by early fall. This is a vineyard working hand-in-hand with nature, providing a vineyard tree edge which accepts a 10% loss of grapes to its finely fed feathered friends.

Montelle Winery is now a sister winery to Augusta Winery. Simply stated, this is a fine Norton wine which they call ‘Cynthiana’ at great case prices. I’ll slip in a little note here that has nothing to do with Norton wines, ~ have you ever tried a Chardonel wine? Though I don’t normally pick up whites and even more remotely, don’t consider semi-sweet wines, Montelle’s Chardonel is a good starting point of learning about this Cornell University introduction. (“As a cross of the famed Chardonnay grape with the popular Seyval, Chardonel is usually barrel fermented, very dry and full bodied. This is great with heavier seafood dishes as well as chicken with cream sauces.”

I throw in another Norton wine producer for different reasons. River Ridge Winery is a friendly out-from-the-beaten path winery with a Norton offering that is unique in that you get to contrast two barreled Norton wines. The same grapes from the same location, but one called Norton (aged in American Oak) and the other named Cynthiana (aged in French Oak).

Röbller Vineyard & Winery makes a Norton that sits right in the middle offering a great value wine that successfully caters to tastes that go the gamete north-to-south / east-to-west. Need a picnic or dinner wine? This one can go either place. We started our Norton experience here and will return to this site for many years to come. A robust Norton wine and as importantly, nice people.

A winery we found on this year’s trip west was Oak Glenn Winery & Vineyard. Though we haven’t settled on a family ranking of this wine, it is strange that we keep going back to this case, and before long it will be all gone.

To conclude my Missouri tasting treats, let me add Heinrichshaus Winery. I include this small winery because its proprietor insists that Cynthiana grapes were a sport of Norton grapes and his wines are "true" Cynthiana. He'll even show you the pictured differences between the growing habits of the grape clusters. Supposedly there is not any controversy about the Cynthiana/Norton grape any more, . . . . . . . . . . or is it?

Planning a Missouri wine tasting road tour? This is a selected list of vineyards we would consider returning to or visiting for the first time (*vineyards visited and enjoyed):

Adam Puchta Winery *( Hermann, MO
Augusta Winery *( Augusta, MO
Baltimore Bend Vineyard ( Waverly, MO
Bethlehem Valley Vineyards ( Marthasville, MO
Blumenhof Winery *( Marthasville, MO
Bommarito Estate Winery *( New Haven, MO
Cave Vineyard *( Ste. Genevieve, MO
Chandler Hill *( Defiance, MO
Charleville Vineyards ( Ste. Genevieve, MO
Chaumette Vineyards & Winery ( Ste. Genevieve, MO
Claverach Farm & Vineyards ( Eureka, MO
Crown Valley Winery *( Ste. Genevieve, MO
Durso Hills Vineyard & Winery ( Marquand, MO
Eagle’s Nest Winery ( Louisiana, MO
Eichenberg Winery ( Cole Camp, MO
Grey Bear Vineyards ( Stover, MO
Heinrichshaus Vineyard & Winery *( St. James, MO
Indian Creek Winery ( Monroe City, MO
Jowler Creek Vineyard & Winery ( Platte City, MO
Keltoie Vineyard ( Oronoga, MO
La Dolce Vita Vineyard & Winery ( Washington, MO
Little Hills Winery ( St. Charles, MO
Montelle Winey *( Augusta, MO
Montserrat Vineyards ( Knob Noster, MO
Mount Pleasant Winery *( Augusta, MO
Native Stone Vineyard ( Jefferson City, MO
New Oak Vineyards ( Wellington, MO
Oak Glenn Vineyards & Winery *( Hermann, MO
Oovvda Winery ( Springfield, MO
River Ridge Winery *( Commerce, MO
Robller Vineyard Winery *( New Haven, MO
St. James Winery *( St. James, MO
Stone Hill Winery *( Hermann, MO
Stonehaus Farms Winery ( Lee’s Summit, MO
Summit Lake Winery ( Holts Summit, MO
Terre Beau Vineyards ( Dover, MO
Twin Oaks Vineyards ( Farmington, MO
Vance Vineyards ( Fredericktown, MO
Westphalia Vineyards ( Westphalia, MO
Whispering Oaks Winery ( Seymour, MO

Now the problem of selecting a Norton wine becomes more complicated after concluding a recent search of Illinois Norton vineyards. Oh, shucks, Illinois has 22 vineyards producing Norton wines. It looks like another trip is brewing.

As stated before, your Norton wines will benefit by decanting, which in turn mellows the strong Norton tannins and balances the flavors when served. Consider putting away your findings for a few years. We have found a little patience goes a long way with Norton wines.

I have to stop typing now as my doctor-minister-wine aficionado-brother-in-law has just walked in the door with a Three Sisters Vineyard Norton exclaiming “you have to taste this outstanding Georgia Cynthiana”. Did I mention that Georgia now has four Norton vineyards? Oh, well – we can talk about this later.

Boris Bauer
Easley, SC


Eric Jolliff said...

Did you know that Norton is Missouri's state grape and that Missouri was the primariy wine producing region prior to prohibition? I LOVE HERMANN!

VA Wine Diva said...

I took a few years off from Norton but have started to sample it again recently. Thanks for the tip about not judging this wine based on a newly opened bottle. I still think the Norton blends will be more my cup of tea than the more straight-up versions, however.