Tasting Virginia 3 – Chrysalis Vineyards

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!®

Historic gravesite at Chrysalis Vineyards, by Mari Kane, www.tastingroomconfidential.com
Historic gravesite at Chrysalis Vineyards

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.

Wine label Chrysalis Vineyards Norton, www.tastingroomconfidential.comOk, 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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Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Studio.com. Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.

5 thoughts on “Tasting Virginia 3 – Chrysalis Vineyards

  • July 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts about my wife, the lovely Sharon’s Norton! Please let me know how you enjoyed our Barrel Oak Winery wines! Thank you for exploring our small piece of Paradise here in the Virginia Piedmont!

  • July 17, 2011 at 5:07 am

    I’m glad I stumbled onto your blog article featuring your explorations with Norton Wines. Your tower experience to Chrysalis’ Norton wines reflected our personal reactions. Though we all would like to be able to pluck a fine wine off a store (winery) shelf to enjoy immediately, this is not the case for Norton wines. In 95% of our experiences, which includes tasting over 100 Norton wines in ten states, these wines need to age five or more years before reaching a bottle maturity to truly enjoy the contents. We have found only three “drink now” 100% Norton wines over the years, though there are a few very nice blends that can be appreciated within a couple years from production. Again you have to be able at the winery to judge the Norton wine for its storablity in spite of the malic acids that smack you initially from tasting the wines. Add to this that Norton wines need to breathe for an extended time before pouring which you do not get the advantage of at a winery’s test tasting. With 242 Norton wineries in 23 states, the fun just now is beginning in exploring the possibilities of this varietal. A standard winery Norton cannot be expected, especially with the weather extremes in Virginia. This is why you will find that every year Chrysalis’ Lockley Reserve Norton takes on a completely different blended character to provide a taste acceptable to their expectations. Only Virginia’s Cooper Vineyards has come up with a reasonable consistency year-in-and-year-out, much like Missouri’s Stonehill Cross J Norton (all of which benefit from extended storage). I’m looking forward to your Barrel Oak Winery experience since we have a case of their 2008 Norton patiently waiting to be opened 2013-2016.

  • July 18, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Thanks for your thoughts Norton Wine Travelers. I gotta say, though, that I don’t know how more age would improve a Norton wine that was made 5 years before and still has fruit that jumps like the Chrysalis Locksley. Without more tannic backbone to begin with, aging can only lead to oxidization, a condition I noticed in that wine after it had been opened a day. Aside from more oak treatment, I’m thinking that blending it with a more sturdy wine would help, perhaps petite sirah. At any rate, I am in Washington DC now, getting ready to head to Charlottesville for the WBC 2011 and looking forward to trying more Nortons, especially ones from Missouri, if they are presented. Please stay tuned here as well as on twitter – #WBC2011 – on Saturday during the “Live Blogging” of red wines. There are sure to be Nortons discussed.

  • July 18, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Hey Brian- We had a blast at BOW and look forward to seeing Sharon at WBC this weekend. Talking to people in DC, I’m hearing good things about your place, which tells me you are doing the right things to draw visitors. Please keep me posted on your development of the Marshall estate.

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