Hang on a moment, I am not saying that all of a sudden I adore this grape and the wine it makes, but after this year’s tough harvest [under statement] it does deserve some of my respect.
A bit if background on this grape. Many believe that it is the true native grape of North America, with the parentage being made up mostly of Vitis Aestivalis, with possible traits of Vinifera and Labrusca as well. It is believed to have been first cultivated from the long forgotten grape called Bland, by Daniel Norton of Richmond Virginia. Ironic that it has any connection with Bland, as bland it is not, kind of like saying Mike Tyson cannot pack a punch. It’s character is unique, with excessive amounts of acid and high sugars, small berries and inky color. It is sometimes confused with the variety Cynthiana, but genetic evidence suggests that Cynthiana might indeed be a mutation of the original Norton.
It is no secret that I do not like this variety at all. I grew up drinking and working primarily with Cabernet and Shiraz grapes, and to this day adore those wines and styles similar to those. Norton to me is like a liquid grape pixie stick, a flavor that is interesting, but ultimately does not do it for me. Truth be told, on top of that Norton is a pain in the behind to work with.
Trellised on a double curtain system with a cordon of 6 feet off the ground, pruning and picking this grape is tough work, and I may need Tommy John surgery to fix my shoulders. It produces small berries with little juice to skin ration which makes shoveling out a tank of pomace time-consuming and back-breaking work, that goodness for delegation in this department. Norton is a grape that requires little work during the growing season but it gets you when you actually have to work with it.
It is believed to be somewhat bulletproof, with some growers suggesting that it can grow anywhere as it mimics a weed. I would suggest this is not the case, with a clear difference in quality from our hillside Norton to our lower block Norton, not to mention a huge difference in tons per acre. Seems like Norton needs some T.L.C too, and truthfully it sometimes becomes the forgotten grape, being that it is tended to and picked last.
Okay, so we have established I am not a fan, but I do have some new-found respect for this grape and it’s ability to retain varietal character during what has been the most challenging vintage I have worked, EVER. With earthquakes, hail storms and copious amounts of rain [should have been a rice farmer this year], red grapes were a challenge to get ripe and picking was done more on a need to come off basis. Norton quietly went about its business and when I finally decided to get it off, I was shocked at how clean it was, that it had any sugars and that the resulting wines are true to the grape. Admittedly I even came in one morning and said the cellar smelled fantastic, describing the Norton fermentation. The wines are now going through their secondary fermentation but I am amazed at the concentration of the wines, displaying dark fruits on the nose, complexity on the palate and a density that will not be typical of a lot of 2011 red wines in the State. Thankfully we have a fair amount of Norton in the cellar with plans to produce both a regular bottling and a reserve. I do not make Reserve wines every year, out of the 120 odd wines I have made at Keswick Vineyards, only 12 of them have been designated as a Reserve quality, but this year it would be an injustice to not add this designation to one of the blocks.
In an industry where many wines are generic, producing predictable flavors year in and year out, Norton deserves my respect for being unapologetic and staying true to character. In a harvest such as this, I can appreciate that and humbly, I give Norton it’s deserved props.