Bringing back Norton

By Marcia Vanderlip  2009-9-11 10:59:16

Our state grape is ready for its close-up — in its own glass

Photo by Don Shrubshell

Maximilian Riedel sniffs a Norton wine produced by Les Bourgeois Vineyards in the Riedel wine glass he designed for Norton wines.

Norton seems to be moving up in the world of red wines. More than a handful of Missouri winemakers continue to win state, national and international competitions. They are also improving both growing and winemaking techniques. Norton, the official state grape since 2003, even has its own wineglass now. It’s a big glass, for a big Missouri wine.

This is a list of some Nortons we like. The price of a Norton wine will vary from $11 to $40, depending on where it is purchased, the quality, age and availability. If you can’t find the winning wines locally, check the winery Web sites or take a fall tour of wineries. For more information aboutThe wine glass was unveiled late last month at Les Bourgeois Winery & Vineyards in Rocheport. Maximilian Riedel, an 11th-generation Austrian glass designer, showed off the prototype for the glass after a tasting, in which he demonstrated that the size and shape matter. The company has long held that the right glass can enhance the aroma and flavors of any wine. The Norton glass will be available at the winery next month.

Months earlier, the shape of the glass was determined after winemakers, sommeliers and wine writers tested Norton wines in various wineglasses made by the Austrian glassware company. Head winemaker at Les Bourgeois, Cory Bomgaars was in on the tasting in Kansas City.

“We tested Norton in five different glasses and narrowed it down to two styles;” a Spanish red glass and a Syrah glass became the styles later merged to construct the Norton glass, Bomgaars said.

“Cabernet glasses were kicked out early,” he said. Norton tasted better in the glasses suited for red Spanish and Northern Italian varietals. “The Norton wine could be comparable to hotter climate, lower tannin reds that are made around the world — but Norton is not like a Cabernet,” he said.

Even so, “I hate comparing varietals and even regions,” he continued. “It’s inaccurate — and it downplays the quality of our wine.” The quality of Norton in this state has increased dramatically in the past five to 10 years, he said. Les Bourgeois is among the wineries winning awards and praise for Nortons.

Overall, Bomgaars said, Missouri winemakers and grape growers “are learning to grow it better in the field,” opening the canopy up to allow more sun to reach the grapes, thereby reducing the varietal’s high acidity. The tannin management in the wineries has also improved. The well-managed Nortons are holding onto the “brighter violet” colors.

The Norton has its cheerleaders among wine experts. Glenn Bardgett has been a judge in wine competitions for 20 years. As wine director for Annie Gunn’s, a St. Louis restaurant, he features a page of Missouri wines — including seven Nortons — on his extensive wine list. Among the labels on the list are St. James, Adam Puchta, Hermannhof and Stone Hill wineries.

“It makes no sense to me that restaurants brag about supporting local farmers, while very few support our wineries,” he said, particularly because they are so deserving. The award-winning Nortons offer “something interesting that a hundred of other places are not producing,” he said. “The world is full of great wines, but many of them are the same Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir-based wines that were started in Europe. Norton is our own.”

And yes, it is nearly our own. Missouri winemakers first began finessing the hardy native American grape more than 150 years ago, when it was brought from Virginia to the Hermann area. Doug Frost, a Kansas City wine writer, master sommelier and master of wine, explained that Norton was once called the Virginia Seedling. It was “the progeny of Dr. Daniel Norton,” from whom it gets its name, though it is sometimes called Cynthiana.

Frost, a Norton fan, describes the wine as “powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid” — think red apple — “and capable of staining teeth or even wineglasses.” The wine is “probably something most drinkers have to learn to love, with its rough and rustic personality often evident,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But there are an increasing number of Nortons that taste modern, clean and even sleek. And while few Nortons seem likely to age gracefully beyond a few years, there are one to two dozen Missouri Nortons —and some others from neighboring states—that are delicious in youth, whether as table wine or as syrupy Port.”

At the turn of the century, the Norton was among the celebrated wines made in Missouri. As many as 61 wineries dotted Hermann’s rolling hills, according to Tim Puchta of Adam Puchta Winery, south of Hermann. Puchta is a sixth generation winemaker. His great-great-grandfather started planting grapes in 1855. In its heyday, Missouri was the second-largest wine-producing state in America, until Prohibition killed the wine industry. Norton vineyards were destroyed, said Puchta, who returned in 1989 to revive his family farm. He replanted Norton with “new stock generated from older stock and cuttings that have been around for over 100 years.” Adam Puchta Winery, the oldest family-owned winery in America, reopened in 1990 and is now making award-winning Nortons. Puchta also provides Norton grape juice to Annie Gunn’s for the chef’s sauces and meat dishes.

David Johnson had never heard of Norton when he came from Michigan to Missouri to work for the Held family at Stone Hill Winery in 1978. The senior winemaker recalled that no quality Nortons were being made when he arrived.

Yet, “in the 1800s Norton grapes were producing dry, red wines that were world famous,” he said. A Stone Hill Norton won an award as the best red of all nations at the 1873 Vienna World Exposition.

Johnson and the Helds got busy planting Norton grapes. Today Stone Hill is consistently producing award-winning wines.

What’s more, sustainable, well-managed practices are producing better wines. In 1995, Johnson and the Held family planted Norton grapes on a 9-acre site around the Held’s home. It became known as Cross-J Vineyard. The 2005 Cross J. Vineyard Norton won both a gold medal and the Governor’s Cup at the 2009 Wine Competition. Stone Hill, along with St. James Winery, is among the nation’s most frequently awarded wineries in competitions.

The Cross-J win was encouraging to other winemakers such as Bomgaars. The emphasis on the “quality of the grapes from the vineyard to the bottle shows what focused management can do,” he said. It is very exciting that “a vineyard-designated wine won the Governor’s Cup.”

Bomgaars also admires the winemaking skills of Tony Kooyumjian, owner and winemaker at Augusta and Montelle wineries, southwest of St. Louis. Kooyumjiian, who has been making wine for 30 years, began to finesse the Norton in 2000.

“At that point we realized what it took to reduce the acid — but we didn’t want to reduce it too much.” The acid in the wine is what “gives you that fleshy, full-bodied mouthful,” Kooyumjian said. Augusta’s 2005 Norton Estate qualified as a full-bodied mouthful. It took the Jefferson Cup in 2008.

Getting sun to the grapes has been key to making better Nortons. “We learned how to get the right amount of light on a south sloping hillside,” Kooyumjian said. Augusta’s Nortons come from the estate vineyards on that south-facing slope. Kooyumjian spends time training and inspecting vines. The “estate vineyard is 50 meters from my house.”

In general, he agreed, “the Norton wines are getting better,” and those made after 2000 are also aging nicely.

An aid to the industry in recent years has been the research and workshops provided by the Institute for Continental Climate and Viticulture and Enology housed at the University of Missouri. The institute, funded by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, is also training future winemakers and growers for Missouri’s 78 wineries. The institute’s research is aimed to improve winemaking practices, said Keith Striegler, a viticulturist and associate professor at MU.

The Norton is grown in Missouri because it is a tough grape, he said. It can withstand cold Missouri winters and hot summers and is more disease resistant than many other varieties. The drawback is that yields can be low. It takes a seasoned winemaker and grower to make a good Norton, he said.

“A lot of science and art goes into to making a good Norton wine,” he said. “If you drop in a top-notch winemaker from California into a Missouri vineyard, it would take him awhile to figure it out.” Winemakers here have learned how to grow Norton grapes. “We pour these wines at meetings in California, and everyone is impressed.”

The institute is also helping winemakers through the Missouri Wine Technical Group, which was organized last year. Winemakers get together to do a blind testing of their own wines and then follow that tasting with a candid critique. “We talk about flaws and positives,” Bomgaars said. After a discussion, the wine identities are revealed. “Sometimes the winemakers get trashed, sometimes they get huge compliments. The goal is to make better Norton,” he said. “We learn from each other.”

Missourians aren’t alone in their appreciation of Norton. Les Bourgeois and other Missouri wineries ship all over the country. Other states, too, are calling Norton their own. The Norton is grown — and grows best — in middle-belt states, including Arkansas, Virginia, Illinois and Indiana.

Kooyumjian said Missouri winemakers “have long had a love affair with Norton.” The relationship has stood the test of time. It takes a long time to ripen the Norton. “Most grapes are ready to harvest after they reach coloring in 30 to 50 days. The Norton takes 80 to 100 days. The Augusta winemaker is feeling the love this year. Harvest time is not until October, but his grapevines look healthy and the sugar is being retained in the grapes.”

This could be another good year to raise a glass to Missouri’s grape.


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