Taste & Nose: Fondly referred to as the “Cabernet of the Ozarks”, the Norton grape produces a full-bodied red wine with colors of earthy red to purple. It’s generally quite bold with warm spices and exhibits flavors of blackberry and dark cherry. These wines can be decidedly “oaky” if they are aged in oak barrels, as many Missouri wineries do.
“Oaky”: You have no doubt heard this term used to describe a wine flavor or aroma. In my naïve inexperience, I could never pick up on this characteristic because no wine ever tasted like an oak tree and I often wondered how so many people knew how they tasted. Alas, there is more to it, and here is an explanation from Wine Spectator:
“[When barrel aging] The phenols in the barrel interact with the wine inside, and depending on a whole multitude of variables, including what kind of grapes are used, the flavors of the wine combine with the flavors imparted from the barrel, and you start getting some of those vanilla, coffee, mocha, butter, or caramel notes”
Pairing: This wine is quite delightful when paired with red meats due to the spice and boldness. I would also happily drink it with any poultry dish or big, hearty, savory stew.
Selection: Dale Hollow chose this varietal for its unique taste and excellent winemaking qualities. It is tough in cold environments and is one of the most disease resistant vines. It is dear to our hearts as the state grape of Missouri and the industry is trying to build an identity around this dry red wine. As fate would have it, this also happens to be the varietal that helped bring Asher to an enjoyment of red wine. Norton can be a great transition to other red wines as some vintners choose to mix in some sweeter varietals in order to bring out semi-sweet qualities.
A Bottle? I’ll Have a Case, Please.
Research: From reading about cold hardiness zones, disease resistance charts, and simply touring regional wineries, we had a good idea which grapes we could grow for winemaking. However, this told us nothing about taste. Our mission (and we chose to accept it) was to drink as much local wine as possible and decide on our favorites. We knew which grapes could grow, we just need to figure out which ones made exceptional wine. Obviously, we aren’t looking at copying other vintner’s methods but it’s nice to have a benchmark and they should consider it a compliment.
Grey Bear Norton (2008/2009)
We have searched far and wide for our favorite Norton… and there is only one Dave Fansler. We attended a wine convention in 2012 and were offered some “reserve” Norton from under a table from a well-respected vineyard……and it left a little to be desired after we had become so accustomed to the ’08 Grey Bear. Our hope is to be able to work with Dave to build on his early success with the grape and make a fantastic wine. If you can find a bottle of this stuff, grill some steaks and open the bottle as quickly as you can. This particular vintage exemplifies all that Norton is known for: big, dry, dark red to brown (earthy), not as oaky as some, decidedly peppery, and totally absent of the overly-astringent taste that can plague a young Norton.
Bristle Ridge Winery- Montserrat, MO (2008)
It is difficult for us to drive by this winery just outside Warrensburg, MO and not stop to pick up a bottle on our usual trip to Stover. This is one of the few grapes that Bristle Ridge grows on-site and its clear they have a decent terroir for Missouri’s favorite grape. Compared to some Nortons, there is less of that “in your face” spice that screams to be washed down with a juicy steak. This is more of a light and fruity version, yet avoiding the watery and flat taste that sometimes occurs when vintners try to deviate from the usual Norton course.
An important note about Norton: not only does it age surprisingly well, but it actually needs it. We have tried so many Nortons that are a mere one to two years old and they can be so vividly bright red and “hot” that the characteristics so wonderful in a good Norton are masked. If you buy a young Norton, the best thing to do is let it age a few years. If you can’t wait, you can let it breath in a decanter or in your glass to let the air calm the wine down as much as possible. Otherwise, be prepared for lots of swirling to try and tame the wild beast. The best advice I have in the current year (2013) is to search out 2008 Nortons from all over the state. It will be interesting to see how the ’09 and ’10 vintages fair in the coming years. Until then, we will be actively searching out ‘08s from all over the state, or even earlier, to see if we can draw any rudimentary conclusions; such as peak aging times both in the barrel and in the bottle, and how many years until it starts to turn. Is 5 years perfect? We hope to answer this. Although it does have superior aging potential compared to many Missouri wines, we have tried Norton from early in the new millennium (more than 10 years old) and they had taken a turn for the worse.
“Taken a turn”: When wine has gone beyond its aging potential and begins to taste like muck. Red wines, because of the tannins, will take part in a wonderful dance of balancing out the acids and sugars in the wine causing changes (good and bad) while in the bottle. Perfect cellar conditions (around 55ºF, 12.78ºC, as dark as possible) will only help the process. Some will age better than others and a vintage chart can be of great assistance in ensuring you don’t ruin the experience by letting it sit too long. Also, don’t wait for the perfect moment: drinking that particular wine when it is at its perfect maturity is the perfect moment.
The important thing is not how we feel about the wines, because as I will always point out; tastes are subjective: one of the most important lessons in appreciating wine! Get out there and try some Norton wines for yourself and come to your own conclusions; I just like to provide an outline of how we do it. You may also notice that both wines we chose are from wineries we have visited and had the opportunity to get to know the owners. For us, this is half of the experience. If accusations of favoritism spring forth, I would counter with the fact that visiting wineries usually allows for better access to the full inventory of wines from multiple vintages and genuine explanations from the vintners themselves on what they were going for with the wine. (Well, that and there is no one lobbying my keystrokes with wads of cash of any sort and I could only wish there were kickbacks by the bottle!) You may find that older ones are available that you can’t find off-premises. Many times, stores are carrying the most recent release and you could be drinking a decent wine that would be exceptional if you let it age for a few years. We have even been fortunate enough to try vertical flights at a few wineries.
Vertical Flight: Tasting an identical wine from multiple years and one of the most revealing ways to discover a varietal. This can demonstrate how a wine should taste while noting things such as weather during certain years, different growing strategies, and aging potential.
If you have the means, you don’t necessarily need to sweet-talk a vintner into dipping into their classic vintages; you can probably ask around at wine shops to set up your own personal vertical flight at home. Clearly, we have more research to do on aged Nortons from many more wineries to see if our favorites change. It’s always good to have goals!
Credit where it is due: factual information from Iowa State University Viticulture Program