November 29, 2010

The Emperor Norton Grape

The Hermanoff winery tasting room and delicatessen occupy this building.
A long time ago—three dogs ago—M. and I passed through Hermann, Missouri, after visiting my sister's farm in southeastern Missouri. We bought some white wine—most of the local wines were whites—and had a picnic.

Later, after the same sister moved up to Little Dixie (Randolph County), she took Dad and me to Les Bourgeois winery, and I discovered that Missouri did offer some drinkable reds (although it is indicative that Les Bourgeois' best-selling red, Riverboat Red, is described as "a tantalizing blend of raspberry and cherry aromas, this chilled sweet red dazzles the palate with rich layers of ripe fruit."

Cherry ... sweet ... ripe fruit. Uh, no thanks.

Last week, M. and I visited three Missouri wineries: Les Bourgeois, Adam Puchta, and Hermannhof, the latter two in the German immigrant-founded town of Hermann, whose wine-making history goes back to the first half of the 19th century. We also had a bottle of Stone Hill's Norton varietal wine one night at dinner.

All of these wineries' dry red wines rely on the Norton grape, grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and introduced to Missouri around 1860.
Well adapted to sweltering Midwestern summers, the grape became very popular in the [Missouri] area. Several nurseries along the Mississippi River began selling seedlings, especially in and around the tiny town of Bushberg, just east of Pevely. Catalogs from 1870 proudly advertised Norton, which by that time had already become one of Missouri’s most popular grapes. 

In the 1920s, prohibition shut down the entire American wine industry. European wines regained preeminence on the world stage, a position they have been loath to relinquish ever since. But now, with American wine making a comeback, Norton is gaining momentum. “It has made a remarkable recovery,” noted Laszlo Kovacs of the Mid-America Viticulture and Enology Center, located in Mountain Grove, Mo. He specifically praised Norton as an “American grape that can be made into a premium-quality wine.” He’s not the only one in on this secret – today, Norton is the most widely planted red grape in the state.

We tasted Norton-based wines at all of these vineyards, and they all have a family resemblance. I lack the fancy vocabulary of a wine writer, but compared to the California wines that I am used to, the Nortons tasted "grape-ier" (My favorite was Adam Puchta's "Legacy.") It's not a bad taste, just different from the "big" California reds that I am used to.

We brought a few bottles home and will try them out on our wine-loving friends.

This post's title invokes the real Emperor Norton.


TNWT said...

If you brought home any Norton wines, be advised that most Norton wines will need to be four or more years old (older is better) and all Norton wines need to breathe no less than 40 minutes before consuming. Please do not compare North America's only true varietal grape/wine to vinifera wines found in California and Europe. Doug Frost, a Kansas City wine writer and Norton fan, describes the wine as "powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid and capable of staining teeth or even wineglasses. [The wine is] probably something most drinkers have to learn to love, with its rough and rustic personality often evident. There are an increasing number of Nortons that taste modern, clean and even sleek." After tasting 104 Norton wines, we have found several (6?) exceptional examples. I really like how Kim , a Madison, WI journalist stated an introduction to Norton wines as “I love the way [Norton] wine becomes an example of what it means to be American, a symbol of a country and a culture" after reading Todd Kliman's The Wild Vine.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Interesting observations. Thanks for writing.