For almost a quarter-century, Jim and Betty Held's Stone Hill Winery has shown off its Norton red wine with a mini-extravaganza at its Hermann home. The event featured the sampling of its newest release--the 2008 vintage--a couple of weeks ago. At the same time, visitors tasted the 10 most recent vintages, 2001-10.
That's a vertical tasting, the same wine over a number of vintages. A horizontal tasting, by contrast, would be same wine, same vintage, from a collection of wineries.
I've attended almost all of them at Stone Hill. The latest group is the best overall Norton vertical of my experience.
The 2010, picked only last fall, is far too young, of course, but it has the distinctive Norton flavor and aroma, and in a few years, it should be outstanding. Same goes for 2009. The newest release, from a very late '08 harvest, has the classic inky color, rich, plummy aroma and austere feeling on the tongue. However, it's not quite ready to drink. There are jagged edges here and there in the flavor, and a little too much oak unbalances it. It needs a year, preferably two, lying in a basement, or a closet, or any place cool and not subject to major temperature fluctuations. That will smooth the roughness, correct the balance, make it a tasty, delicious wine.
My choice for the best of the decade was the 2002, and it also was my choice a year ago. Dave Johnson, Stone Hill's senior winemaker and the man in charge of creating Nortons for more than 30 years, had the same responses when I talked to him the other day. And the group at the tasting made it the crowd favorite. By the time everyone has tasted 10 wines, plus some bubbly a little earlier, folks tend to get a little rowdy, and the masters of ceremonies, brothers Jon and Thomas Held, who operate the winery and vineyards, and Johnson encourage multiple voting. Still, the 2002 still earned the most votes.
Well, it's a fully mature wine, without a rough spot. Oak has contributed, leaving the wine rich and smooth. There are hints of well-worn leather in the aroma, along with some dark spices. Balance is elegant, and it's a wine to accompany any meat-based meal. After dinner, it's a perfect match with a dark chocolate dessert.
If one has to make a "tastes like. . ." comparison, I'd go for a Syrah-based wine from France's Rhone Valley. Johnson agrees, but first notes, "Frankly, I think the Norton stands by itself in terms of wine, but people always like to make comparisons."
Norton, also known as Cynthiana and Virginia Seedling (same grape, regional nomenclature), is the source for the best dry red wine in the state. It's a native American grape known botanically as vitis aestivelis (classic French grapes are vitis vinifera, and American grapes like Concord are vitis labrusca), and it is resistant to most of the diseases or pests that attack grapevines, like phylloxera. It also survives temperature extremes. The berries are small and not very pleasant to eat, with many tiny seeds.
Most Missouri wineries make a Norton as their prime dry red, and many make excellent versions, but the taste of the finished wine can vary widely. Different winemakers prefer different styles, so length of aging and type of barrels is a factor. So is the location of the vineyard in terms of weather, sun exposure, wind, water and soil, what the French call terroir.
Stone Hill made a few stylistic adjustments to its Norton about 30 years ago, a decision made by Johnson and the Held family.
"We decided to make it in the classic red wine manner, rather than the so-called 'Missouri style,'" Johnson explained. "We wanted to make the wine enjoyable while it was younger, which involved picking the grapes when they were riper, which meant gambling on Missouri autumn temperatures. We also changed our cap management during the fermentation, exposing the wine to more air for gentler tannins, and we made an investment in barrels (coopered in both France and Missouri) so that we had more new oak for the aging process. And we have a new storage facility that has better temperature control and results in more even aging of the wine.
It worked. Over the last decade, the Stone Hill Nortons have showed more fresh and youthful fruit flavors, less tannin, more roundness and balance. And speaking of a gamble, Stone Hill is doing the aging and keeping the wine under optimum conditions, rather than making the consumer spend money today, store it and hope the wine improves. I don't know any other wineries that take such a risk.