What is Norton you might be asking? If you’ve spent much time tasting wine in the Midwest, Middle Atlantic states, and parts of the South you have inevitably encountered Norton. Winemakers in those regions love it because it survives cold winters and resists mildew and other diseases caused by excessive humidity. (They also hate it because it has a peculiar chemistry—high acidity and high pH.) Consumers love it because it is a big, dense wine with lots of flavor and soft tannins. The problem is that when compared to conventional Vitis Vinifera varietals it can have a one-dimensional “grapey” flavor. More importantly, it’s loaded with malic acid making the wine sour with a hard mouthfeel even after malolactic fermentation (which raises the pH even more leading to spoilage problems). I’ve tasted a few good Nortons and many that would be better used flavoring a beef stew.
So what’s the solution? Winemaker extraordinaire Clark Smith says “grow the grapes in California”. These grapes are from the Herringer Family Estate in Yolo County at the north end of California’s Central Valley where plenty of sunlight, great diurnal temperature variation, and a long growing season knock down the acidity and make Norton a very happy grape. The problem is there is little Norton grown in California. Thankfully Clark has access to some of it.
The result is a magical wine—dark, mysterious yet strewn with a lacework of crystalline top notes that appear like sudden sorcery—think Poe rewritten by Castañeda.
Blackberry is the dominant aroma but some red fruit notes meld with mocha setting the stage for lovely violet top notes enveloped by warm spice accents.
In the mouth the wine is round and full at entry. When the acidity kicks in the movement is a deft, mouthwatering crescendo finishing in those jangly, crystalline top notes yet anchored by persistent, large-framed fruit power that gives the wine tremendous frequency range. The suppleness and depth that gives definition to the midpalate never flags throughout the lengthy finish that features gently lapping, delicate astringency.
A dark, visceral, exotic experience that takes you on a journey to Bjork’s Hidden Place.
Technical Note: High pH is usually associated with low acidity but not in Norton because of high potassium levels. The high pH, which leads to spoilage problems if not addressed, can be controlled by adding tartaric acid which makes the wine even more sour. It’s a real headache. Norton is a non-vinifera grape from the species Vitus aestivalis. It is sometime called Cynthiana, especially in Southern Missouri and Arkansas.
Price: $40 (Purchase here. A new vintage is on its way.)