On Saturday, Stone Hill Winery in Hermann Missouri held its annual Norton 10-Year Vertical Tasting and Dinner. It’s the sort of event any Midwest wine fan would have enjoyed attending. I couldn’t be there because of my wedding anniversary, so instead I’ve gone for the next best thing: an interview with Dave Johnson, senior winemaker at Stone Hill for the last three decades, who hosted the event.
To define our terms here (which I didn’t fully understand myself before embarking on this story), a vertical tasting is a taste test of wines of the same type and from the same winery, but from different years (vintages). This is different to a horizontal tasting where usually you taste wines of the same type from different wineries but from the same vintage. So the objective of a vertical tasting, like this Norton event, is to see how a wine type from a particular winery changes over the years.
“It’s really one of the most fun events of the year and one of the most educational,” says Dave. “You can stand there and pick up each glass and look at the wine against the white table-cloth and see how the youngest wine is this purple, red color of Norton grapes and as it ages the color changes until towards the oldest wines it has more of the traditional red brick color.”
The winers and diners at Stone Hill sat down to their own row of 10 special Norton Glasses (a glass that is slightly torpedo shaped, designed by the crystal maker Riedel), each containing a Norton vintage from the years 2002 to 2011. The most recent two years – 2010 and 2011 – have not yet been bottled so those tasting samples were taken directly from the winery’s barrels.
Most people did prefer the older Nortons, but there were plenty of punters who liked the youngest ones best. The youngest and oldest Nortons had very different flavor profiles. Dave characterized the 2011 barrel sample as having that fresh Norton grape character, similar to a Beaujolais Nouveau (the light, fruity French wine, usually made from the Gamay grape, that’s designed to be drunk as soon as its harvested and put in a bottle) but really full-bodied and much darker in color. Some people would say the younger Nortons have an almost ferocious, fruity dry taste.
By contrast, after spending time in oak (twelve months for Stone Hill’s Nortons) and then the bottle, the clear fruit character of the younger Nortons disappears. The older vintages had developed a new layer of oak flavors and aromas and then another layer of complexity developed in the bottle (bottle bouquet) like subtle cigar box, spice and floral smells. The more senior wines had lost their acidic impact on the palate and had a much smoother, velvety feel in the mouth.
Across this ten-year span of Nortons many of the changing characteristics were following a predictable pattern that comes with aging. However, like human beings, different wine vintages don’t age at the same rate or in the same way. Some people get grumpy as they get older, others mellow, some people are wrinkled prunes by the age of thirty, others look okay into old age. It’s the same with wines. Depending on the weather, crop load (the amount of fruit on the vines), fermentation processes and other factors, different vintages will express different tastes and smells. “One Norton might be lighter and more delicate, another might be more muscular and tannic, regardless of how old they are”, says Dave. So of these ten vintages, which are his favorites? One of the older wines, the 2005, was Dave’s choice for drinking now. “It was at the perfect stage and was a very nice vintage” he says. The 2011 showed great potential. “At this stage it’s very young and not terribly complex, but with barrel aging and time I think it is going to be a great vintage.” Dave was especially happy with this Norton because about 15 years ago Stone Hill started trying to make the younger Norton wines more enjoyable and less acidic to adapt them to suit the wine drinking habits of most customers. “There might be a few people who buy Norton and lay it down in their cellar,” says Dave, “but the reality is probably most bottles of Norton are aged about as long as it takes to get from the cash register to the tables out in front of the winery.” One thing Dave will be watching is how this particular Norton deals with the aging process because while he likes the basic style of the wine he says it may not age as long as some of Stone Hill’s older vintages.
This vertical tasting is a unique opportunity for Stone Hill’s winemakers to assess a cross-section of Norton vintages, observe the reaction to them from customers and inform their winemaking process. While Dave made no suggestion that there’ll be any radical changes to their winemaking on account of this Norton taste test, he said one method they’ve been using to tweak the flavor of their Nortons is pneumatage. This technique is part of what’s called wine cap management, where the word ‘cap’, refers to the grape skins that float on the surface of the juice during fermentation and need to be pushed back down into the juice to impart their flavors and contributions to the fermentation process. Dave explains: “When you ferment a red you end up with a cap of skins floating on top of the liquid, the CO2 clings to the skins and they float to the top. So you have to mix that back into the liquid in order to extract from the skins all the things that you want. Of course the original method for doing that many, many centuries ago was treading the grape juice. Another method is the small lot technique of punching down, when you simply push the skins – or cap – down into the liquid with some kind of punch down device, often just a board on the end of a two by four, something like that. There’s also pumping over, when you pump the liquid out from under the cap to over the top. Pneumatage is a method where we inject a sudden burst of filtered, compressed air to the bottom of the tank. It goes “bang!” almost like the sound of a gun and this huge bubble of filtered, compressed air goes into the tank and rapidly rises up and breaks through the cap, and causes a folding over motion that blends the cap back down into the juice.”
If like me you missed this tasting and are planning on testing Stone Hill’s Nortons yourself, the 2008 is the one most likely to be available in retail outlets across the Midwest (usually for $19), but the 2009 through to the 2002 are currently for sale and all available at the winery, although the older vintages are in limited supply (and range in price from $25 to $30). 2001, 2000 and 1999 are available too, but they’re not usually for sale. Perhaps if you asked them nicely?
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Stone Hill’s 10 Year Vertical Norton Wine Tasting. Dave is especially proud of this milestone because it will mean they’ve been making a Norton capable of aging for 10 years, for 35 years. “That’s a unique situation for many wineries, let alone a Missouri winery”, he says.
As we finished our conversation I told Dave I’d do my very best to get to next year’s big 25th anniversary scheduled for the same time in April. He politely reminded me that this was unlikely as wedding anniversaries don’t generally change dates.
All photos courtesy of Lucinda Huskey, Stone Hill Winery’s Public Relations Manager