In Stone Hill Winery’s tasting room, Dave Johnson, senior winemaker at Stone Hill since 1978, summarized my quest for a drinkable Norton in no uncertain terms. “The Nortons you’ve had – and I read your little blog – that you didn’t like, is that because you don’t like Norton or is that because you didn’t have any good quality Nortons? I guess we’ll find that out when we taste some other Nortons.” A good point made with the aplomb of a wine expert. Dave, fellow Stone Hill winemaker, Shaun Turnbull, and Thomas Held, family owner and head of sales and marketing, were all eager to try the fruits of their labor with me. I could have felt a little pressured in this situation, after all, what if I really did hate their beloved Norton grape?
Fortunately Stone Hill Winery was the last stop on my wine quest. By the time I climbed the vine-covered hill towards this winery in Hermann, I was well on the way to answering Dave’s questions. At my first stop, Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, winemakers Cory Bomgaars and Jacob Holman invited me to a taste test they were performing on samples of wine taken from their tanks, including Norton from the 2011 harvest. These samples were high in acid but even at this early stage of their development they were probably as good as the half-dozen Nortons I’d tasted before this trip. With a specially made Norton glass (see picture) designed to eject the wine directly onto the tongue, I also tried Les Bourgeois’ 2009 Norton and after a few sips it was clear the sour, tart flavor in Nortons I’d tried before this quest, were under control. The acid was there but not too dominant and there were some nice, peppery, pomegranate flavors coming through. So far so good.
St James Winery, a couple of hours south, was the next stop. I was more than an hour later than planned because I’d had so much fun trying wines with Cory and Jacob.
Ann Miller, marketing manager at St James Winery, greeted me with friendly understanding and took me around her winery. After an engaging chat with CEO Peter Hofherr I was in a tasting situation again. The ladies in the tasting room, with Ann’s help, treated me to a St James 2007 Norton and also their 2008 Reserve Norton. (Another wine investigator who took a sceptical and amusing position on Missouri wines in this blog, raves here about the 2007 St James Norton .) I could appreciate the 2007, but I enjoyed the more oaky 2008 Reserve.
Ann and Peter kindly gave me a bottle of the 2008 Reserve and a day or two later I happily drank a couple of glasses with dinner and watched my wife and mother in law drink it with gusto. As I left St James I felt like I was getting the hang of the Norton style now and at least starting to appreciate it’s distinct qualities when it’s handled by a good winemaker. The overbearing and unpleasant sour and tart flavors I’d tasted and smelt in Nortons before this trip were being replaced by smell and taste characteristics including floral, sherbet, blackcurrant, gooseberry and pomegranate.
So back to Stone Hill Winery. We started with a couple of Norton samples from their tanks where the 2011 harvest is gestating. Like Les Bourgeois tank samples they were acidic but interesting to taste and an improvement on Nortons I’d tasted before this trip. Then we moved on to their 2009 Norton which is aged in American oak and compared it to the Cross J Vineyard 2009 Norton. The Cross J is sourced from Thomas’ parents’ private vineyard and then aged in European oak. At this point I was a little distracted as I admired the professional swirling, sniffing, tasting and spitting of my three companions and a little embarrassed when I tried to imitate them and my wine spit rebounded a little off the container and landed ominously close to Dave. They politely turned a blind eye as Shaun poetically described the Cross J in relation to the regular 2009 Norton: “It’s more of a spicy taste, more clove and spice with cinnamon on the nose, a leathery forest floor, in there is a truffle note, it’s a bit more elegant, European in style”. All I could offer was: “I’m enjoying them both and not getting those tart flavors.” My tongue to brain communication skills are not as advanced as Shaun’s but I did feel my Norton education was taking some steps forward helped by his verbal gymnastics in a South African accent. The European style that Shaun is referring to distinguishes Norton wines from the big, fruity flavor of many Californian and New World reds. When handled well, the Norton is a more subtle, softer wine that relies on its acidity and the tannins it can get from oak barrels – rather than a Cab or Syrah with their natural tannins – to give it structure. Dave compares the old world style of Norton to Italy’s Barbera grape.
So it was on to the 2005 Stone Hill Norton. With the 2005 I moved on from appreciating the Norton to thoroughly enjoying it. Shaun came up with more poetry: “It’s more beefy and spicy. Fruits…” He continued thoughtfully after poking his nose back in the glass, “You probably get a bit more rose pot-pourri, but not that live, flowery or floral characteristic. Pine as well on the nose, kind of pine needles.” I asked if this 2005 was like a toned down version of the 2009 Crosss J? “Yes,” said Sean. “It’s not so much fresh fruit, you’re getting more of a tertiary age character now, it’s almost more drier prune than plummy. “ Dave pitched in, “It’s starting to develop what I call bottle bouquet and that’s what good red wine does when you age it. The fruit, the clear Norton varietal character, starts to become subdued and now you start to get some other things that weren’t in there to begin with. It’s chemistry.” And so it was. This was a classy wine with its fruit in the background, gentle on the tongue with velvety textures and delicate, woodie aromas. I was really hoping I’d get the rest of this bottle to take home. (I didn’t, but Thomas kindly gave me a bottle of their 2008 Norton Port and I drank some of that last night – it was very nice). The Norton quest was over and the verdict unanimous: the Norton grape can and does make lovely, distinctive wine.