There’s a certain pretentiousness involved in setting up what is called a "national Norton wine festival" and attracting only 12 wineries, all from the state of Missouri. Of course, modesty has been in short supply in the Missouri wine establishment ever since the politicians and marketers took control, pushing the winemakers and grape-growers aside and creating things like a Missouri State Grape to accompany a Missouri State Amphibian and a Missouri State Bird, a barely visible and much-smaller-than-life-size addition to your new license plate.
Actually, it’s about grape-sized.
Of course, maybe the politicians and marketers are right, since the wine industry has burgeoned in recent years. According to the state wine and grape board, there now are at least 74 wineries in Missouri, with revenue over $30 million annually. There are also some 200 commercial growers (some may be winemakers, too) producing 2800 tons of grapes with revenue of $2.3 million. Wineries are a huge tourist attraction, and much wine is sold over the counter after a tour or a tasting.
Remember: Wine always tastes better at the winery.
I’ve been writing about – and praising – Norton wines for more than 30 years, and always have insisted that it’s the best red wine made in Missouri, from the best of all native American red grapes. Found among a group of wild grapes in Virginia in the 1820s by Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton, it was carried west by settlers and has been in Missouri since the 1840s.
Missouri vineyards also produce a grape called Cynthiana, but my best knowledge is that they are the same. For a long time, almost as a marketing gimmick, wineries south of the Missouri River used the term Norton, those north of the river called it Cynthiana. They’re pretty much interchangeable, whatever they’re called.
The unique quality of the Norton is that it is from the variety vitis aestivalis; the classic European grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and others are from the variety vitis vinifera.The result is a rich, hearty, full-bodied wine with excellent structure and a long, deep finish with tastes of plum and other red fruits. Good Nortons are similar to the wines of the Rhone Valley in France, wines made from Grenache or Petite Sirah. The shortcoming is that Nortons need to be aged; too many are drunk too young and show a strong overtone of tannin. They need barrel aging, too, but a couple of years in oak increases the tannin, along with the flavor. And, if the winery stores the wine the necessary 5-7 years before it’s truly ready to drink, the cost goes up. Barrels and space and time are expensive. Be patient. Instead of buying a bottle of Norton, taking it home and opening it with dinner, buy it and put it in the back of a closet or somewhere else where it will not be overheated nor subject to temperature fluctuations. Leave it for a while. Then uncork it and enjoy it with beef stew or steak or lamb chops.
The featured Nortons at the Missouri Historical Society were quite good. Long-established wineries like St. James (St. James), Mount Pleasant (Augusta), Hermannhof (Hermann) and Stone Hill (Hermann), new producers like Chandler Hill (Defiance), Seven Springs (Linn Creek), Twin Oaks (Farmington) and Cave (Ste. Genevieve), and those somewhere in the middle, including Adam Puchta (Hermann), Crown Valley (Ste. Genevieve), Les Bourgeois (Rocheport) and Chaumette (Ste. Genevieve) were in attendance, and the young Nortons, some blended with Cabernet Franc or even Cabernet Sauvignon, were generally quite good. As noted before, most needed additional bottle age, but even the young wines displayed good structure and the fact that newer winemakers know their stuff.
I’ve always been a fan of the Stone Hill Nortons. Dave Johnson is a superior winemaker, and his older Nortons, like the 2001, were delicious, with black currant overtones and superb structure. Brothers Andrew and Brian Hutson of Twin Oaks displayed a 2006 Shady Oak, a blend of Norton and Chambourcin, that had nice spice and pleasing fruit. Their Norton, of the same year, needs time but has the basics in place and will mature nicely. Crown Valley had a 2002 and a 2004, both with elegance, and Cave displayed a full-bodied 2005 that had won a gold medal at the State Fair.
The 2002 from Hermannhof, aged 20 months in French oak, was excellent, as was the St. James offering. In other words, while most of the Missouri Nortons have their individual characteristics, they’re also more Norton-like, and that’s a good thing.
And speaking of Nortons, we drove through part of the Virginia wine country while visiting in the D.C. area a few months ago, and we stopped at the Horton Cellars property in Gordonsville, home of Horton’s Norton, and lots of other wines, too, in a lovely property not far from Charlottesville. That town, home of the University of Virginia and of Thomas Jefferson, is worth a special visit. We tasted a number of the Horton wines, including Vidal Blanc and late harvest Vidal Blanc, plus a sparkling Viognier, Niagara, Syrah, Malbec, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and a Port made from pears. All well-made and tasty. And we bought a couple of bottles of the 2004 Horton Norton, from grapes grown in Orange County, Va.
It takes us a while to get moving, but we finally tasted the Horton Norton from and a 2005 Missouri Norton from Stone Hill’s Cross J Vineyard, in the hills just west of Hermann and overlooking the Missouri River. Both were splendid, dark ruby in color, with cassis and blackberry in the aroma. They were just about fully ready to drink, and they were elegant, delicious examples, with a sturdy structure, lots of fruit on the palate and a long, gentle finish.