Deep South Norton Wine Travels

*We have a new report from reader Bauer today about his travels to discover the “American grape” Norton in the South. This update is a long one, but contains a wealth of information about the who’s who of Norton. Many thanks to Bauer for continuing to provide us with such detailed descriptions of his finds. I’ve reprinted it in its entirety here.

How deep?  Let’s limit this to areas where muscadine and kudzu vines entangle homes or where tea is a whole heck of a lot sweeter than you could have ever imagined.  The geographical area is tremendous, ranging from Atlantic beach front property, across hidden Appalachian mountain valleys, and touching Mississippi River deltas.  In this report, our Deep South guest will include Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee.  Though the old Confederacy encompassed 750,000 square miles, we will concentrate on only 293,654 square miles in this report.  Dern, we are talking about a stretch of road that consumes thousands of miles to find 27 vineyards in six states; it would have been easier to visit all the National Parks than zigzagging around finding these Norton vineyards.

To be realistic, this review can never be finished since fortunately there are always new vintages and vineyards coming “on line”.  As for a numerical break down of vineyards, I’ve found so far 27 Norton producers in the following states:  Alabama – 2, Georgia – 4, Kentucky – 7,  Louisiana – 1,  North Carolina – 3, and Tennessee – 10.

In this appraisal, remember that one year’s vintage is not a reflection on a winery’s total production.  If you had a marginal experience at a particular vineyard, please go back and compare in future years.  The vintner’s art of bringing forth that special Norton wine is an ever changing challenge.  My wife and I have tasted 66 Norton wines so far with some true disenchantments, but more importantly, we have been able to find many delightful Norton wine examples.

ALABAMA was a quick and easy weekend trip made with friends who were formerly only Scotch & beer partakers.  This excursion was comprised of two wineries and a train ride provided by the Dixie Railroad Museum.  White Oak Vineyards, nestled in between native & hybrid deciduous azaleas (rhododendrons) near Anniston, Alabama and whose wines are labeled Southern Oak Wines, is one of those places where you quickly appreciate the efforts made by the owners.  We usually can bop quickly in-and-out of wineries accomplishing our intended visit, but at this location we left two hours later with a mixed case in hand of their Burgundy Norton and other wines.  Does this start to tell you of pleasant surprises one can find on a Norton wine trail?  The owner/vintner interestingly used an Australian “flex-tank” with added new medium toast French oak planks which properly added structure and brought texture to the tannins.  This estate grown Burgundy Norton blend (85% Norton and 15% Chambourcin) was an example of a good Norton wine made today that I’m willing to bet will get better in the years to come. Shucks, I wish I had time to tell you about their first-class Chambourcin wine which is truly a Southern treat.  With the suggestion of the White Oaks proprietor, we traveled the next day with our friends to Ozan Winery which came complete with a much shorter than advertised train ride from the vineyard.  This was an interesting stop because of their unorthodox approach to Norton wine production.  First was a Vino Rose Norton which was appreciably not too sweet.  We picked up a couple bottles as gifts for friends who would perhaps enjoy such.  Next we sampled Ozan’s 2007 Norton wine.  Let me be truthful in saying that we did not truly enjoy this Norton wine sample, but let me also state that there might be others who find this an interesting Lite Norton.  I’m not found of anything Lite, be it Lite beer or Lite DSL Internet speeds.  Ozan’s Norton had a light uncharacteristic color and a taste I would not wish to cultivate in comparison to other Norton wines.  Chalk up Alabama as one thumb up and one thumb down for us this October weekend.

GEORGIA now has two out of four vineyards producing interesting Norton wines.   Though we visited all four sites in one day’s race around northeast Georgia, unfortunately our first attempt at securing Cane Creek Vineyard’s Hellbender was not to be since they were already sold out in late summer, but were hoping to have more available later.  O.K., I know you are wincing from this Hellbender term, so understand that this wine is named for the rare, locally found, red-orange, almost two feet long, largest salamander in the western hemisphere.  So mid-November I drove again over two hours one way through beautiful back roads to see if Hellbender was back on Cane Creek’s menu (and it was).  Hellbender is produced on a small nineteen acre vineyard at 2100’ elevation with only one acre set aside for these fourteen year old non-lyred Norton vines.  225 cases annually can be produced if all goes well with the harvest.  This is a no excuses dry 100% Norton wine with a typical Southern slight sour taste.  Immediately one would conjure negative thoughts with such a description, but realize that most Southern wines, be they Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc., have unique “sour” overtones because, in the proprietor’s opinion, of the regional clay soils.  This is a nice Norton that doesn’t portray being overly oaked in spite of the fact that this 2007 wine had been held in Pennsylvania Oak barrels (very similar to French Oak in the opinion of the vintner) for over 25 months.  Weather, setting, host, visitors, a stunning black bean soup, two well behaved dogs, and a different Norton made for a great day.  I will “lay down’ this case of Hellbender for four or five years to see what time will bring to this interesting animal.

Tiger Mountain Vineyards (Tiger, GA) has made an effort to introduce into the northeast region of the state Norton wine and two other Norton blends (Mountain Cyn and Rabun Red).  Because we live fairly close by, we made the trip here twice in three years to re-evaluate our original thoughts of their Norton wines.  Any wine should have tasted better with the good local cheeses offered during the tasting, but our second trip substantiated our first visit’s disappointment of wines with a new and unrefined character.  An additional complaint is both times our courteous servers / sales personnel had truly no clue what they were serving.

The third site, Three Sisters Vineyards, had already been introduced to us by our brother-in-law as a gift of their Cynthiana (Norton) and therefore we were going to this winery with a certain anticipation of a wine that we had already enjoyed.  We were not disappointed at all with our pleasant visit.  This husband and wife team were most gracious upon our arrival in answering any and all queries and even gladly sharing with us a barrel tasting of a Norton to come in a year or so (really nice).  Their sincere enthusiasm was shared with all customers who made the effort to find their beautiful vineyard setting near Dahlonega, GA.  I think with a bit of time in the bottle, this will stand up to Virginia’s better Norton examples and will be an interesting contrast to some of the finer Missouri Nortons.  Our last stop, Frogtown Cellars, was literally around the hill from Three Sisters Vineyards.  The picturesque setting is everything you could imagine that money can buy, but nothing could entice us to buy this $29 Norton at any price.  This is a new location with a nice setting for a delicious brunch and someone else’s wine.

Let me interject some observations on THE COST OF A BOTTLE OF NORTON WINE.

Most vineyards will have Norton wines in the $14-to-$20 range making it one of their more expensive offerings.  Be aware that $35-$50 Nortons can also be found in a couple Virginia wineries.  The price range may be caused by several factors:  1) the tonnage of Norton grapes per acre can be one half or less of other varietals 2) the later seasonal harvesting of the Norton grape increases production risk 3) the sheer extended processing and storage of the Norton wine to have a favorable product adds to the cost  4) most Norton vineyards produce 3,000 cases or less per year of all their grape varieties and do not attempt to compete with mega-vineyards production sites 5) large grape productions farms can produce grapes at one-third the cost of small venue producers 6) most Norton vineyards are less than 15 years old and with their considerable investment must attempt to produce a quality wine which in turn cost more to stay in business  7) then there is the matter of the $500, $800, & $1200 oak barrels used which for some reason, it seems, is thought mandatory by so many Norton producers  8)  Now to blow all this rationalization apart, we do have Horton Vineyard’s that introduced Norton wines in Virginia in 1991 at $10 a bottle, and today has increased that pricing to a whopping $12.  Missouri’s St. James Winery offers three Norton wines (which are all very good) at costs of $6, $10, & $15.  Because we are talking about wines of the Deep South, we should note White Oak Winery’s educational efforts to introduce to its local area a good Norton at $13.

KENTUCKY is a state worth the bouncing around its scenic horse farm vistas on roller coaster, excruciatingly narrow roads lined with century old stone wall fences.  Our first stop was Chrisman Mill Vineyard near Lexington, KY.  The Norton wine, produced from 10 year old on-site vines controlled in American oak barrels for 18 months, punched out to us with a lack of expected maturity.  Being rather “mild” with no unusual character, we picked up only a couple bottles which will make for a comfortable informal conversational dinner table wine with friends.  Chrisman is working on a Norton Reserve wine which was shared with us, but not ready for public release.  High in sharp tannin tastes at this point, but with time maybe an interesting Norton to consider.

Next we traveled to the nearby Wildside Vineyards which offered a full slate of wines from locally grown and “imported” California grapes.  Unfortunately the Norton wine had a wild foxy grape taste reminiscent of other unfavorable American varietals.  In our opinion, this winery was more into the business of wine rather than the art of wine production.

We literally “rolled” through the countryside to our last stop of the day, Lover’s Leap Vineyard.  With a namesake like that, we braced ourselves for the encounter.  Well, here came the surprise of the day, a host that not only knew something about grapes and wine production, but honestly was in love with and proud of their products.  The family had just bought one year ago the entire vineyard wine production facility and already wanted to make a distinction between wines past and wines current.  Kentucky will have a bright wine future with such efforts as being put forth by Lover’s Leap Vineyards.  Not only did we slip effortlessly into their Vidal Blanc, but found their current Norton wine, a product of only one year’s work with grapes collected two years ago, a pleasant surprise which will hopefully mature nicely in the bottle over the next couple years.  A soft, easy to taste Norton wine which made us smile with the realization that there is someone serious about wine production in Kentucky.  We are glad we made the effort to wander the back roads of Kentucky to find this picturesque country farm setting.

Day two was a bit maddening following our GPS’s “shortest route” designation which had us encountering one lane, river bottom, make-believe roadways.  It was beautiful traversing this setting in our camper as long as there was little approaching traffic.  We finally found Wight-Meyer Vineyard with their “green” young Norton.  This was a winery with displayed awards for fourteen of their wines, but not for their Norton. Our time was not lost since we at least left with two bottles of their nice Kentucky Vingoles and a local habanera-apricot jam.  Another hour of driving found us at the small family Smith-Berry Winery. Here we found a slightly lighter colored Norton and a tasting rejection from my wife and a curiosity tasting note from me.  To me, this was a bright, light on the nose, subtle tartness Norton wine which could be as an easy afternoon or a complimentary evening meal wine.  On most tasting occasions my wife and I agree on wine tastes, but on this one you will have to tell us who was correct..  Our host did mention that there actually were two more Nortons, but were not available for tasting (????).  So the trick here was that you had to buy their other 2003 produced Norton or a 30 month oaked Norton on a blind purchase.  On the recommendations of our hostess, we opted for the extended oaked aged selection.  Oh, we will let you know about the results of this when we get home . . . . . . . . . . . .

[We are home now and the wines have rested in a cool dark place for three weeks from its travels.  A day has been set aside to taste this 2005 30 month oak aged S-BW Vintner’s Reserve Norton on our son’s 30th birthday.  Bottle decanted in a large broad based vessel, resting for 40 minutes, and served at slightly less than room temperature.  With eyes all looking anxiously, ears listening to the pour, noses putting to the test of bouquet promised, and my son’s voice exclaiming upon tasting – “vinegar”.  Four people quickly agreed to the term of “cottony mouth” as palates endured the effects of green persimmons.  Will there be future blind winery purchases for us?  Lesson learned.]

The last stop of the day was late in the evening at the beautiful park-like setting of Elk Creek Vineyards and Winery.  Their Norton wine was ill named as “Sweet Owen Red”.  But after tasting, we liked and agreed with Kim, our hostess, who stated “I can enjoy this wine in front of a fire or in the sun.”  Not only did we enjoy our enthusiastic hostess, but we also enjoyed their vineyard grown, light colored, yet full bodied Estate Chambourcin along with a Cabernet Franc worthy of multiple purchases.  The $$ Cab Franc was short oaked first in American oak followed by French oak for eleven months before being placed in stainless tanks.  It took us over 90 minutes of tasting fun and an additional purchase of their burgundy-like Chardonel to get away from this site.

The next morning we found ourselves atop a hilly bald and River Valley Winery’s farm setting surrounded by vineyards, llamas, sheep, duck, and three grand white Great Pyrenees dogs.  This was a fun setting for our last tasting of Kentucky Norton wine, or as they called it – Cynthiana.  Though the Norton grapes did not come from their farm’s vines, they did come from a nearby Kentucky vineyard and the wine was produced here on site in only stainless tanks.  An interesting ruby-colored Norton which does not over power you as so many other Nortons do by being overly oaked.  This is a casual Norton that does not have to apologize for being different from other typical dark cherried tasting examples.  And while you are here, don’t leave without a clutch of their Medovina (honey mead) wine.

And I have been just informed from a blog reader that Kentucky now has an additional Norton wine producer, – Cedar Creek Vineyards.  More on this one later.

If you do decide to travel the Kentucky Norton wine trail, a GPS is a wonderful navigational tool as long as you are well fortified with additional detailed state maps.  Beautiful state, but be aware of why so many of the back road vehicles are missing bumpers, fenders, or head & tail lights.

LOUISIANA has only one vineyard producing Norton wine and this is an example of extreme individual tasting conclusions.  From Warren at Virginia Wine Time (http://www.virginiawinetime.com/), came this comment of Pontchartrain Vineyard’s Norton:  “The Rouge Militaire [2002 wine] is made in the pinot noir style, and the grape juice character usually associated with Norton are much more subtle; in fact, dark red fruit like plum and cherry prevail here.  Envisioned was cassoulet with duck confit for dinner with the Rouge Militaire. A medium-bodied wine, it finished smoother than most Nortons with a hint of smokiness that bordered on seductive!”

And here is another view of the same: Gary Vaynerchuk / http://garyvaynerchuk.com/ ~ “color looks like melon juice, smell like wet leaves, a little bouquet of black pepper and curry, border line atrocious.  COLOR-orange/brown; very thin; NOSE-like a garbage truck on fire; tomato sauce with copper pennies; TASTE-horrible; GV-50 points.”

So I’m going to try following up these two divergent reviews?@!$#%)?!  My first out is that we are evaluating a 2004 Rouge Militaire [Norton] wine; therefore, I don’t have to go up against the words of these more knowing wine connoisseurs.  Here goes, – a bouquet of acetone with a deep burning taste that can completely dehydrate one’s mouth in moments.  I’m not sure what the color is, but it ain’t rouge.  Yep, another plain wishful thinking American Rogue Norton wannabes.

NORTH CAROLINA has three vineyards out of 92 wineries producing Norton wines.  To add to this dismal Norton numerical count, one of the wineries, Moonrise Bay Winery on Knotts Island along the Atlantic intracoastal waterway, suffered a total Norton grape harvest loss this past year (but plans to try again next year), leaving only two Norton wineries to try.  Though Hinnant Family Vineyards, near Raleigh, “specializes” in muscadine type wines, they did offer a Chardonnay and an $11 Norton.  Now we have the dilemma of what to say about this Norton wine without being caustic.  As a former military pilot, I did like the label portraying a Wright Flyer making its way somewhere over the Outer Banks.  The nose bouquet highlighted the barnyard flavors.

Next we tried a Norton from Grove Winery & Vineyard which sports twenty-three different wine offerings from $9-to-$40.  Luckily, their Norton wine was on the lower end of the numbers at $18. Well, here goes, – I’ve never tasted anything so thin which tries to mimic flavored hard water.  Grove could consider having a lower dollar bench mark or shifting their Norton grape efforts in another direction.  It is truly amazing the efforts North Carolina is making with their wine industry (replacing tobacco), but in spite of heavy promotional advertising, we have been dreadfully disappointed with all their vineyard grown grape wines encountered so far.

TENNESSEE  had only one Norton visit from us back in the summer of  2008.  As we traveled down I-81 passing through the eastern tip of Tennessee, we encountered Corey Ippolito Winery in Blountville, TN.  Obviously their “Cynthiana” (Norton) vines were too young and there was a rush to produce an Italian styled, food friendly, Norton wine.  The best I can say for this tasting is to turn north traveling 25 miles and see what a Norton table wine can taste like at Abingdon Winery in Abingdon, VA.

Now I’ve returned to hit the remaining nine Tennessee wineries that offer a Cynthiana (as referred to in this state) in some form or another, be it a blend, port, or straight up.  Still moving east to west, I encountered Mountain Valley Winery in Pigeon Forge, TN.  Tasting was free with no sales push, friendly atmosphere, but no one had any knowledge of how the wines were made.  The host was provided with a tip sheet of where some of the grapes came from since MVW only buys the grapes or juices and “processes” the wine at this touristy location.  Their Cynthiana (Norton) had a light cough syrup taste which I presume would sell in this setting.  Wonder if Dolly Parton has tried any of these wines?  I also tried their Chambourcin and Gewürztraminer concoctions with little success.

Next was a drive down to Tennessee Valley Winery in Loudon.  Pretty “Great Smokies National Park” setting, but the poor struggling vineyard vines were the brunt of a hard life (birds, 70 inch rainfalls, yellow jackets galore, and terrible seasonal temperature extremes).  According to this vineyard owner, strange Tennessee laws force wineries to buy local grapes which impacts their success/failure of wine production.  Take TVW’s Appalachian Red which was comprised of Chambourcin, Norton, and the kitchen sink.  Every grape imaginable was to be found in this wine to supposedly meet state wine production restriction.  Poor vintners, it is obviously a hard, hard life in this state.  TVW did try to produce something a bit unique with their ‘Late Harvest Cynthiana’.  An unfortified 100% Norton Port which had been barreled oaked for five years and obtaining on its own almost 19% alcohol.  An interesting variation for a port-of-sorts.

Now it was time to try a winery hard as heck to find out about since they do not sport a web page.  With a telephone call I was able to pry a suitable e-mail address contact for Striker’s Premium Winery.  This small family winery went to great lengths to find local and specialty grapes.  An example was their Marechal Foch grapes, which came from a physician who farms his grapes on the Tennessee-Georgia border.  Except for the Foch Wine, all their other wines, which included their Cynthiana (Norton) had an “earthy” taste/aroma which I did not “cotton” to on this occasion. As a family operation Striker’s is working hard and trying to offer something unique to local patrons.

A quick run in and run out at Ocoee Winery.  Unlike Norton wines too commonly found in other states that usually have a dark cherry taste with a bubblegum aroma, this was the first Norton tasted that had a light strawberry hint in it’s presentation.  Not for me, but I know people who possibly would like this accessibly priced Cynthiana.

Last stop of the evening was at Beans Creek Winery. Beans Creek Winery offers 32 different grape and fruit wines. What a hoot. A good instance of trying any and everything imaginable and finding yourself scrambling to find a single bottle with any real appeal.  I picked up a bottle of ‘Tennessee Chambourcin Reserve’ and ‘Tennessee Cynthiana’ just as a sincere venture to finding a Tennessee wine memory. It’s a chore finding wines in a state that produces only 600 acres of grapes annually.

With the cold freezing January wind in my face I started the next day with a leisurely two hour walk around Tennessee’s Native American 2000 year old ceremonial “Stone Fort” in Manchester preparing myself for miles of driving and hopes of better Norton encounters.  Just to wet your appetite, I’ll tell you this day made up for the previous day’s escapade.

Finding Old Medina Winery in Jackson, TN was a simple task being only a short spit off the Interstate.  Oh horrors, the promised Cynthiana (Norton) was no longer available and the owners were no where to be found to taste the forthcoming bottling which was suppose to have occurred the past week.  The hostess did offer OMW’s Red Cynthiana which was purportedly like their regular Cynthiana, but only slightly enhanced with a bit of sugar.  With the taste of this slightly sweetened brew and a few other offerings, I figured that maybe I had not missed much and was content to state my reactions to queries about their wines as “interesting.”

With the help of a friend from Gibson, TN, we found next Century Farms Winery, which again was a vineyard very close to Interstate I-40.  Though this Norton wine had come from relatively young six year old vines, these tendrils were obviously planted in real soil, – unlike the previous samples all grown in a thin clay based soil in the eastern part of Tennessee.  The husband and wife team that greeted us were true farmers turned true vintners.  This was my first Tennessee encounter that had made the 671 miles of driving worth the effort.  They shared graciously and unapologetically their current wine and wines to come.  Though only one out of seventeen acres was planted in Norton grapes, they made a delightful easy to drink Norton.  Along with a nicely crafted Chambourcin wine, this showed that someone in this state was making a concerted effort to produce a product worth advertising.  By the way, my friend Larry had no problems in picking up a couple bottles of CFW’s Cayuga White.  Ah, it seems wine can be made in Tennessee.

As they say, sometimes it’s best to save the best for last, and this was dead on today.  We enjoyed Century Farms Winery, but the 20+ minutes to the next winery in Humbolt, TN was the surprise of the trip.  A winery with seventeen acres used for serious wine production.  No pretense here at Crown Winery with the vintners, Peter Howard and Jane Leatherland, very adamantly admitting that their most successful wines come only from the vines of Chardonel, Chambourcin, and Traminette.  So where did that leave our search for a Norton wine?  Well they admitted their successes and stated their attempts to provide an acceptable Norton, named Royal Red, was purely a “love-of-labor.”  An approximate 50/50 combination of Norton and Noiret wine fermented from the onset together.  Next year they will do the same, but rather blend these two wines in the final bottling preparations. These two English vintners know what they are attempting and we got to get highlights of what is coming down the road for next year by being treated with tastings straight out of the tanks.  This year’s Chardonel is good, but wait till you taste next year’s bottle of the equivalent.  Same goes for this year’s and next year’s Chambourcin.  My guess is you best put in your reservations now for next year’s Crown Winery offerings.  As for my friend, he left CW with their clean, yet slightly tangy Traminette.

Now for the last day and Old Millington Vineyard and Winery near Memphis, TN.  The heck with the wine, lets talk about the ambiance of this winery.  After a short wait at the diminutive serving bar, a young boy (man?) appeared who stated he worked at the winery doing about everything.  I have never ever encountered such a flippant, obtuse winery host in my life.  His demeanor and looks of “I don’t really care” was accentuated by the socially insensitive memorabilia posted next to the bar.  Crappy divorce cartoon and a bear-breasted pencil drawn lady exclaiming “Recycle is Sexy”.  This was my first honky-tonk winery I’ve ever visited.  Another middle aged “dating” couple was there and after one drink she rolled her eyes at our host and excused herself to go outside.  Obviously I must be too old to understand to whom such a storefront would have any appeal.  And if this were not enough, the wines generally complimented the setting.  ‘Crying Angel Red’ was their Chambourcin with a blend of Norton grapes.  The host really had no clue about the wine.  I left with a Carlos muscadine gift wine since it resembled an interesting attempt to make Vitis rotundifolia legitimate and a ‘Red Port’ which had “all sorts of stuff in it”, as noted by our host.   Good grief . .  . . . . .  .

With two hands it was eight fingers down and two Tennessee thumbs up.  Thanks Century and Crown Wineries for making the one way 740 mile trip worth the effort.

It is amazing that you have waded through all of this Norton jibber-jabber.   I’ll leave you on these final notes:

Robert Mondavi stated that he wanted to produce “wines of elegance, character, and finesse.”  Well to that end, I think that Norton wines could try challenging one or two of these three attributes.  In spite of the sheer natural exuberance of this grape, I think a few Deep South vintners have been quite successful in holding this grape in check.  It has been a fun challenge to find that special, not so heavily “oaked” Norton that does not shout, but rather has the ability to talk to us quietly.

2010 Southern States Favorite Norton Wines:  Elk Creek Winery (KY), Three Sisters Winery (GA), White Oak Winery (AL), Crown Winery (TN)

4 Responses

  1. Thanks. Good overview of Deep South Nortons. Try our Fat Boy Red sometime. This is a Cynthiana-Cab Franc-Merlot-Cab Sauv blend that is off dry and probably our biggest selling red at $15 a bottle.

  2. You missed Texas and Virginia, the latter of which produces Nortons to rival Missouri, perhaps the best North state in the union.

  3. Hey Wine Curmudgeon-A segment on VA will come later. These posts are from a reader who is totally devoted to Norton and he’s written about other states previously. He’s gearing up for his Norton VA trip soon. No word yet on Texas!

  4. Just an addendum to my husband’s note on Beans Creek Winery. I found the BCW’s Norton an acceptable table wine. No exceptional Norton wine character, but during last night’s Super Bowl we had this wine accompanying shrimp & grits and a bowl of spicy chicken with a more accepting comment from my New Orlean’s Saint fan-for-the-evening. If you are in the Manchester, TN area, you might want to try Beans Creek Winery’s Norton wine as a dry table wine alternative.

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