When we sat down to try four different wines made from Norton grapes, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
On the one hand, Norton is a native American grape variety, not a variety of Vitis vinifera, the European species that produces everything from Aligoté to Zinfandel. And my experiences with wines made from non-vinifera grape varieties, like Catawba, have been questionable. The adjective most often used to describe them is “foxy”—not in the “Foxy Cleopatra” sense but rather in the “tastes a bit like the muskier parts of a fox” sense. So, some trepidation.
On the other hand, Norton is an Ark of Taste grape, and the Ark of Taste is usually a good sign. I had also just finished reading Todd Kliman’s book about Norton, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine. Kliman’s inimitable prose had left an impression of a stunning revelation in wine, an inky tooth-staining American variety without a hint of foxiness that could, in the estimation of connoisseurs like Thomas Jefferson, rival the finest Burgundies. So… I was also intrigued.
I don’t know that I would have mistaken our first entry (Adam Puchta Vintner’s Reserve Norton 2004) for a Burgundy, though it did bring to mind the French Revolution: one could almost taste the smoke of the Grande Armée’s cannons and the sturdy Tronçais oak used to make the Navy’s ships. Once those initial flavors passed, however, the impressions that lingered were unusual ones, and interesting: a definite hint of clove along with a hint of something like a cherry Jolly Rancher lent complexity and depth to a wine that would probably pair well with smoked meats or game.
The second wine (St. James Winery Reserve Norton 2004) was among the most unusual, in that its bouquet was almost meaty, with a strong undertone of something that our group had a hard time identifying at first—caramel corn. (In general the usual taste and scent descriptors failed us miserably.) The follow-through on the palate contained those two elements as well as oak, sweetness, and acid.
The third wine (Augusta Winery Norton 2005) was the most divisive, and interestingly it split our group neatly along sex lines: the men found it to be inoffensive at worst and good at best, while the women were immediately and strongly disinterested. There were slight port and soil notes, along with a reasonable balance of sweetness and acidity—all in all a balanced combination.
Finally, the Stone Hill Cross J Vineyard Norton 2007, a wine that prompted one of us to invent the term “Tan-acidity” and another to jot “Holy tannins, Batman!” This one, we concluded, simply shouldn’t have been evaluated: it needs more time in a cellar. Fortunately, given its combination of tannins and acid, it will stand up to a remarkable degree of cellaring.
What did we learn?
If we were looking for typicity—a sort of benchmark flavor profile that would be the signature of this grape—it was hard to nail down with real precision: there was no signature diesel note to point to and say “this is what Riesling is,” for example. That said, they were all tannic, and acidic, which suggests excellent long-term aging potential: it’s hard to imagine what will happen to the flavors as they age, but we found ourselves wondering.
Another question that arose had to do with oak. It seemed to feature prominently across the board, and we couldn’t shake the feeling that something fundamental about Norton might be hiding behind it. Though we are without exception not big fans of oak in our wines, we were willing to see where these would take us, but we often found that the oak got in the way. This, of course, is a matter of taste: fans of oaky, and in one case literally meaty, reds wouldn’t hesitate at all to recommend these.
Finally, we wondered a bit about how much it matters that Norton winemakers have no referent. Oregon Pinot Noir producers in the latter half of the 20th century looked to Burgundy, for example, often using French wines as a benchmark. What benchmark does Norton have?
The bottom line was this: It wasn’t foxy, and much of what was there was good. But each wine seemed to have a piece of the puzzle rather than the overall whole. Norton probably has exciting aging potential, and an older wine with less intervention could be an even more interesting glass than the ones we had last week. As an aside, for those seeking health benefits from wine, I suspected (and confirmed) based on its tannins that it would have a high concentration of anthocyanins, polyphenols that studies have found to have a wide range of health benefits.
A big thanks to Andrew Hall, our host, for taking a remarkable degree of initiative in organizing the event, and to Danene Beedle (@MOWineGirl on Twitter), Marketing Director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, who passed along the bottles of Norton to Andrew for us to sample.