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The Crafting of Norton Wine—A Primer
By Tim Pingelton
It is often said that a wine’s color, aromas, and flavors
(“organoleptic” impressions) begin in the vineyard, and this is true. However, a Norton producer makes several decisions throughout the growing, harvesting, and vintning process that can affect sensory impressions in the final product. Here are a few items to look for as you taste the results of decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar.

Trellis System
Research in the last 50 years has shown that Norton vines grown on trellis system that allow for even sunlight distribution helps produce wine with nicely balanced acids. Norton vines are very vigorous, and vines should not be trained on a trellis that allows branches and leaves to shade or cover leaves and clusters.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: Tart, bitter wine.

Proper winter pruning of mature vines prevents Norton vines from over-production. If a vine is not pruned, it will produce more berries than it can ripen to make good wine. Unpruned vines lead to small berries (grapes), small clusters, and inadequate sugar in the berries. Pruning also improves air flow, reducing harmful mildew.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: Herbaceous, “weedy” wine. Unbalanced sweet finish if a large quantity of sugar was added to compensate for lack of sugars in the berry.

Norton berries start out as yellow-green blooms which soon grow into hard, extremely tart green balls. About 2 months after bloom, they start to get their dark pigmentation. This period (called véraison) is when the sugars and acids begin to accumulate in the berries. Norton is usually harvested in late September or early October, when the berries are sweet and sugar and acid levels are perfect making a wine with an alcohol level of the winemaker’s choosing.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: Herbaceous, “weedy” wine. Unbalanced sweet finish if a large quantity of sugar was added to compensate for lack of sugars in the berry.

Cold Soak (Cold Maceration)
This is the process of letting the crushed grapes soak in their juice before fermentation begins. This is done to extract pigmentation (which comes from the skins) and flavor (tannins) into the juice. To prevent fermentation, the “must” is cooled in stainless steel tanks to 40 to 50°F.

Lack of a cold soak: under-pigmented wine (not a fault in a blush) or astringent wine (lack of tannin or phenolic compounds).

This is simply the addition of sugar before or during fermentation, usually to compensate for under-ripe fruit. While illegal in some grape growing regions (including California and Italy), it is not uncommon in to chaptalize with Norton fruit (especially in colder climates or with overproducing vines). This does not make the wine sweeter but produces higher alcohol because the sugar is fermented.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: “Hot,” alcohol aroma and taste; unpleasant mouthfeel (heavy); acutely defined “legs”; unbalanced sweet finish.

Fermentation Temperature
Norton ferments great at room temperature, but the fermentation process escalates the temperature if uncontrolled, sometimes up to 100° Fahrenheit.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: Cabbage, rotten-egg, or “cooked” smell (hot, fast fermentation); browned, spoiled wine (overly slow fermentation, open to bacteria); “horsey” aroma (slow fermentation permitted wild yeast to ferment rather than specialty added yeast).

Malolactic (ML) Fermentation
Malic acid is the 2nd most abundant acid in grapes. ML fermentation sometimes occurs spontaneously in wines, or a winemaker can add ML bacteria in hopes of converting harsh malic acid to smoother lactic acid. In white wines, ML fermentation produces buttery flavors, and in Norton it tames harshness.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: Harsh, tart, “mid-palate bite” (no ML fermentation); buttermilk taste (full ML fermentation in low-acid juice).

Many Norton vintners feel that Norton needs to be aged in oak barrels. This dramatically adds complexity to Norton, which is often overly “tight” and boring without oak. American oak (the vast majority from Missouri) is considered to be more aggressive than French oak. Oak barrels are not completely hermetic, and, over time, barrels “breathe,” and alcohol and water evaporate through the tight pores.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: Brown wine (wine was exposed to excessive oxygen); simple, un-complex wine (not oaked or under-oaked); strong Port-like flavor (unsanitary barrels, overextended aging).

Alcohol Content
Yeast converts sugars into ethyl alcohol in winemaking. The amount of alcohol produced depends on the level of sugars in the berries (time of harvest), amount of sugar added, the type of yeast used, and if fermentation was allowed to complete to dryness (lack of residual sugar).

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: Too high: “hot” wine with a heavy mouthfeel. Too low: unbalanced, grape juice wine.

Residual Sugar
Most Nortons are fermented to the point where little sugar remains (a dry wine). Some yeasts do not allow fermentation to dryness, and some winemakers prefer to stop fermentation before dryness or add sugar to a dry wine (rare with Norton). Most Nortons have residual sugar readings of 0 to 0.75% of total composition. Growing conditions ideal for Norton do not usually permit excessive sugar levels to develop in the berries, so a Norton fermented to dryness will usually have an acceptable alcohol level.

Fault if Incorrect Decision is Made: None: usually fine if other decisions have been made correctly. Over 1%: an off-dry to sweet wine. This is uncommon for Norton because (assuming an acceptable alcohol level) it probably means that the grapes developed an oddly high sugar level on the vine or that sugar was added. This condition creates a highly off-balanced Norton, with the sugar tasting distinct from the other flavors.


Tim Pingelton is production manager at Westphalia Vineyards in Missouri and Midwest correspondent for

50% of the proceeds from this historic event will be donated to the Missouri Historical Society.

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