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Wine: Norton and me

"Whatever you do, don't get any of this on you," Jennifer McCloud said as she withdrew a turkey baster from the barrel. Most winery owners would have used a pipette, the slender glass tube used for extracting wine from a barrel. But her casual improvisation made the action more intimate and relaxed -- a gesture among friends rather than new acquaintances. She squeezed the bulb and squirted inky, purple liquid into my glass. The wine's color was incredibly dark, even for a young barrel sample. Clearly it would make a stain no amount of baking soda or salt could remove.

This was my first visit to Chrysalis Vineyards in Loudoun County, in the late summer of 2001, and McCloud was preaching the gospel of Norton. It was not my first taste of Virginia's own grape, and I admitted to her that I was skeptical. I didn't care for Norton's in-your-face attack or the strong flavor called foxiness that betrayed its native heritage, I said. She argued forcefully that Norton was best suited to establish Virginia's reputation as a wine region, because it was created here and built to thrive in Virginia's tricky humid climate.

At that point, McCloud had not released a commercial bottling of Norton, but she had already staked a claim to be Virginia's leading evangelist for its native grape. She is still spreading the message today. Her Nortons, most notably her top bottling called Locksley's Reserve, make a strong case for the grape.

Today, 26 Virginia wineries make wine from Norton, and about 115 acres are planted in the Old Dominion. McCloud owns 40 of those acres, which she claims is the world's largest planting of Norton.

Norton wine has some devoted followers, including Todd Kliman, author of "The Wild Vine," published this month and reviewed in my column yesterday. But Kliman describes Norton as an outsider wine, vying for recognition and respect among a crowded field of European grape varieties. Norton's skeptics don't like its pungent attack and super-high acidity. In my recent tastings, this singular character moderated after a day or two, and the wines became quite attractive by the third or fourth day after opening. But I doubt many consumers will be willing to open a wine on Monday in order to have it ready for Friday dinner.

Norton may never take primacy among local red wines over cabernet franc or other varieties, but I hope it thrives. And, skeptic though I may be, I will return often to Chrysalis Vineyards to hear McCloud preach Norton's gospel, even if she has invested in a pipette.

-- Dave McIntyre (Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  May 20, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags: Dave McIntyre, Wine  
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