As a newcomer to Missouri and its wines I was surprised and delighted to find out about the Norton, the native grape that’s distinct from European varieties, charmed when I read that it’s regarded as the oldest cultivated grape in the US, impressed by its gold medal at an 1873 international competition in Vienna and blown away by a wine critic of the time who billed it as a future rival of the great wines of Europe. I was really pleased, nearly licking my lips, when I could easily find bottles of Norton made by local wine makers in Kansas City liquor stores near me.
Before I had even tasted any Norton I was so excited by the prospect that I found myself trying to explain why I’d never heard of it before or seen it for sale outside the US Midwest. I wondered if the name of the grape was the problem. Does the word ‘Norton’ sound too clunky and boring alongside more glamorous grape titles like Cabernet-Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Zinfandel? Was that why, despite the grape’s hallowed history and pedigree, it had never quite made it into the wine grape hall of fame? Could the name be changed to a Latin sounding Nortonis perhaps? Would that help? These thoughts only endeared the grape to me more – Norton was clearly an overlooked outsider, an anti-hero ignored by the wine industry establishment. I was now really looking forward to not only drinking Norton but also sharing it and spreading the word.
Buying my first Norton bottle was difficult, almost emotional. I grabbed a few bottles from the shelf and read their labels. They promised a dry red with inky purple color, rich body and a full flavor. How could I lose? After driving carefully home I gleefully grabbed the bottle, extracted its cork and poured. The wine looked beautiful in the glass – deep, dark red color and a nice thick, almost viscous looking body. But then I tasted it. The overwhelming flavor was tart, almost sour, something like licking the inside of a tin of artichokes. The problem with this grape was explained at last – Norton wine is hard to drink (for me at least). I’ve tried about half a dozen different Norton wines now – one was even sweet tasting – and each time I really struggled to finish a glass. On several occasions the first sip seemed okay but pretty soon the tart, sour flavors became overwhelming.
I understand now that when local wine makers and Norton fans say this wine is best drunk with strong meats and cheeses, this recommendation isn’t wine and food pairing in the conventional sense – at least for the Nortons I’ve tried. The pairing here seems to be more about masking Norton’s undesirable flavors and making them palatable. It reminds me of encouraging a child to eat the greens on their plate by covering them with gravy.
I know I’m not alone in this experience. People I drink wine with haven’t given me favorable feedback on the Norton. Any locals with a taste for traditional Midwest style wines seem to go for the sweeter whites rather than the tart Norton. The only people I’ve come across who praise it have been local wine makers. But I know there must be other fans out there.
And a couple of times finding a bottle of Norton I liked seemed to be within reach. I’d take a sip, then another, almost like it and then suddenly find I couldn’t go on. I need to try more Nortons and also understand what flavor the ‘ideal’ Norton is supposed to have. Does anyone have any ideas or recommendations? Can a conventional wine drinker be expected to like Norton? This isn’t a heroic quest but Sir Galahad, the knight from King Arthur’s legendary Round Table did face similar issues on his hunt for the Holy Grail. On his exhausting quest that took many years the Grail would sometimes appear before him and then disappear just before he grasped it. I’ve felt the same after sipping a glass of Norton that showed promise but then disappointed – close, yet so far. This week I’m driving around Missouri wine country hoping that a likeable Norton really does materialize. “Ride on! the prize is near.” (Alfred Tennyson, Sir Galahad)