On the drive between La Grange and Chrysalis, after gazing over the 6,000th meadow of bluegrass and horses, I finally said to Tara, “If there are so many wineries here, where are the vineyards?”
She shrugged, clueless as I, and I had to remind myself that we weren’t in Sonoma County anymore. Northern Virginia vineyards do not stretch from fence to creek, on display like beacons for the wineries, like they do in California.
Finally, on the easement leading to Chrysalis Vineyards, we saw acres of grape vines and some of them were probably Norton.
According to Todd Kliman’s book, The Wild Vine, Chrysalis’ owner, Jennifer McCloud, became a pioneer in Norton’s resurgence back in the late 1990’s just at the time when she became a woman. Now, with a winery named for that transformation, McCloud must certainly be enjoying the fruits of her years of labor.
This farm, Locksley Estate, is the single largest producer of Norton in America. With a vine propagation program running overtime, it is literally the cradle of the Norton grape. Norton is, as trademarked by McCloud, The Real American Grape!®
The picturesque estate swarmed with picnickers, enjoying food and wine at tables on the lawn overlooking a pond as well as on the patio next to the gravesite of a 19th century heiress who didn’t live long enough to enjoy her inheritance. Just beyond the patio stood a gas barbecue where guests can cook their own meat or veggies.
The tasting room, housed in what resembled a Hindu temple, was a small affair. We bellied up to the bar and requested tasting, and after paying the $10 fee, the fellow got on his walkie-talkie and found a place to put us. So we weren’t tasting in the tasting room after all. Instead, we were instructed to head over to the winery to find the second room to the right. It felt like being dispatched to the front lines of a wine war.
In the winery, there were wine tastings being conducted at tables to our left and to our right, but we were directed further still, down the corridor into a case room. And there, with his walkie-talkie, our server stood waiting with four or five other tasters, ready to pour.
The winery’s founder was nowhere to be found and I thought it interesting the way our guy described “the owner” as a “he” when the winery was started and then deftly switched “the owner” to a “she” when he discussed the later years, while never explaining the details.
In his folksy way, he guided us through the white wines; two chardonnays, a viognier and a Patio White blend, all of which were good, especially the Viognier, which was ripe with peaches and creme.
But the sight of Norton on the tasting sheet occupied my attention. Finally, we arrived at the red wines and the 2009 Norton Barrel Select. It tasted like Beaujolais Nouveau, one of my all-time least favorite wines. Sure, it was jammy with concentrated cherries, black fruit and raisins, as the sheet described, but it also had a bubble gum nose and banana tongue. Having read the Kliman book, I was looking forward to having a epiphany over Norton, and all I’d gotten was Ralph.
To my relief, there were two more releases of Norton coming. The 2006 Norton Estate Bottled (which means the grapes were produced away from the estate) was quite fruity and tart with red and black berry flavors, and full bodied with firm tannins. Still no wower, but a pretty good wine for $17.00.
After tasting the dry, fruity 2006 Rubiana, the coffee/chocolatey 2006 Petit Verdot, and the complex and juicy 2006 Tannat, we arrived at the 2006 Norton Locksley Reserve.
Ok, this is it, I thought. The Norton I’d been waiting for. Deep red in color, it showed forward black fruit, notes of pepper, chocolate and spicy cassis. Mouth filling and juicy, it had a minerally finish. I bought a bottle for $35. and brought it home.
We drank the 2006 Norton last night in celebration of Canada Day and the Fourth of July. What escaped my notice two months ago was the wine’s abundant acidity and dearth of tannins. The acids could be felt from start to finish and demanded food to soften them. The body fell off in the mid-palate, which was surprising, even with the low 13.1% alcohol. Still, the fruit charged forward like the Iron Brigade, and the minerality amplified its thin mouthfeel. Presumably the most oaked of the Chrysalis Nortons, I think it could use even more oak to balance the aggressive fruit.
Next stop on our Virginia tour, Barrel Oak Winery, where we compare Nortons and it’s “to the moon, Alice!”
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