Have you tried a Norton lately? At the recent Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, the judges’ panel I was on evaluated a flight of four wines made from the Norton grape. We gave gold medal scores to two of them. One was from Frogtown Cellars in Georgia, the other from Cooper Vineyards in Louisa, Va.
I don’t like Norton. At least, I haven’t. I’m an official skeptic about this grape with overwhelming acidity and over-the-top fruitiness. Those are qualities that its fans love, quite honestly. Yet I’ve tasted several Nortons recently that have impressed me with their balance, complexity and restraint. Either my palate is evolving or Norton producers are getting better at their craft. Or both.
Norton has a good all-American story. Todd Kliman, food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine, chronicled the grape in “The Wild Vine” (Clarkson Potter, 2010) from its discovery in Virginia in the 1820s to its heyday in Missouri half a century later and its modern rise from post-Prohibition obscurity. Jennifer McCloud, owner of Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg tends 40 acres of Norton vines — the world’s largest planting of the variety, she says — and has trademarked the slogan “Norton, the Real American Grape!”
And there is a customer base; Chrysalis sells several Nortons, most notably its Sarah’s Patio Red, an off-dry version that anticipated the current vogue for sweet red wines. Norton is Cooper Vineyards’ best-selling variety, says co-owner Jeff Cooper.
Winemakers love Norton because it grows well in challenging climates. “It will grow through sidewalks!” Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards likes to say. Norton is resistant to several vine diseases and requires fewer sprayings of fungicides and pesticides than most grapes, giving it an eco-friendly appeal as well. And it ripens well in challenging vintages, such as last year’s rainy harvest.
But the wines are getting better for a simple reason: Vintners realize Norton won’t grow by itself.
“The challenge has been how to tame the acidity,” McCloud explained as we tasted several vintages of Norton from Chrysalis, Horton and Cooper wineries recently at her home in Middleburg. We were joined by Mike Heny, winemaker at Horton Vineyards, and Alan Kinne, the winemaker at Chrysalis. Kinne made the first modern Virginia Nortons at Horton in the early 1990s before spending several years making wine in California and Oregon.
Norton has about five times as much malic acidity as normal red wine grapes. Malic acid is the tartness that is tamed in most red wines by conversion to the softer lactic acid; this malolactic fermentation can leave Norton searingly tart nonetheless. That can help it age over a decade or more, but most Nortons are consumed young.
“Early vineyards were planted in cooler areas, and the acidity was off the charts,” Heny said. He has achieved a deft touch with Horton’s more recent vintages, keeping the acidity under control and adding an appealing earthy note that lends an Old World sophistication.
Kinne’s experience making pinot noir in Oregon prompted him to use similar techniques on Norton.
“People tend to blast it through a hose thinking it’s indestructable. But if you treat it gently, like a pinot, I think you can elevate its charms while avoiding some of those over-the-top flavors people find objectionable,” he says. With the 2011 vintage at Chrysalis he used the “Burgundian” technique of punching down the grapes during fermentation, a gentler technique than pumping juice over the cap of grape skins that forms in the fermentation tank.
Kinne’s early efforts show promise. The Chrysalis 2011 Norton is grapy and fruit-forward in a fun way, yet it shows good structure and acidic backbone. The Barrel Select Norton, made with the Beaujolais technique called carbonic maceration, is softer and more immediately accessible. The top-end Locksley Reserve is still in barrels, though older vintages, including the 2000, are showing nicely.
So maybe the keys to making good Norton are: Get the grapes ripe, keep the acidity and pH in balance and treat it gently during fermentation. Sounds like any other wine. But these recent successes from Chrysalis, Cooper and Horton have me saying something I haven’t said before: I’m looking forward to my next Norton.