Zin vs. Norton
Let's take another look at the rare but likable American grape that's interchangeably called Norton or Cynthiana. An intriguing variety that's produced mostly by small-farm wineries in the Midwestern and Southern U.S., it makes a clean, fresh wine that - happily - lacks the overwhelming "grape jelly" flavor that puts most serious wine enthusiasts off American native varieties.
As a matter of fact, many of the Nortons I've sampled boast intriguing mixed red and black fruit flavors that remind me more than a little of an American immigrant grape, Zinfandel.
Last December, I reported on a couple of made-in-Kentucky Nortons from the local wineries Smith-Berry and Lovers' Leap (Dec. 24, 2003 Wine Advisor). The other day, I spotted a fresh supply of the Smith-Berry Norton, which was made at the winery in New Castle, Ky., from vintage 2001 grapes grown in Arkansas.
Suddenly an impish little voice whispered in my ear: "So you think Norton resembles Zin, eh? Why not try it in a 'blind' tasting and find out for sure?"
Great idea! As I have often preached, there's no better way to learn about wine - and to keep yourself honest - than to compare two glasses without knowing for sure which is which.
So, using the old brown-bag technique (I bagged them, my wife poured them) so we could both play, I organized a "shootout" between the Smith-Berry American Norton and a very good Zin, Catacula Lake Winery 2000 Zinfandel from the Chiles Valley in northern Napa.
Confronted with unmarked glasses, the Norton bore out my hypothesis: Both wines presented typical berry aromas that could have been Zinfandel. The glass on the left was abundantly fruity and ripe, with luscious but not jammy berry fruit and crisp but not tangy fresh-fruit acidity. The glass on the right showed mixed-berry character, too, but it was relatively muted, cloaked by herbaceous "greenness" and built on a leaner flavor profile. Both wines were good, and they could have passed for cousins. But the left-hand glass - the Zinfandel - won this match on style points and pure fruity enjoyment. Another pairing, another day, and ... who knows?
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Catacula Lake Winery 2000 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($17)
This dark ruby-color wine shows brilliant reddish-purple glints against the light. Appetizing red-berry aromas open up as luscious raspberry with swirling in the glass. Full, juicy and ripe, crisp fresh-fruit acidity, pure berry fruit and a spicy hint of pepper come together in perfect balance to make an exceptional Zin that's more elegant than brawny. (April 28, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Zin (and similar-style wines) makes a great match with char-grilled meats. It worked well, too, with a more non-traditional pairing, a vegetarian dish of corn cakes topped with Old Chatham sheepsmilk cheese and chopped Sicilian green olives.
VALUE: Not cheap, but good enough to compete with "name" Zins in the $20 to $30 range.
WHEN TO DRINK: I'm in the camp that prefers Zin while it's young and exuberantly fruity, although one of this quality can certainly be cellared for up to 10 years, with the understanding that it typically becomes more "claret-like" and less "Zinny" with age.
WEB LINK: Here's a link to the winery Website:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: The winery Website offers online sales where the law permits. Also look up Catacula Lake on Wine-Searcher.com:
Smith-Berry Winery American Norton ($12.99)
"Sappy" and "green" aromas dominate underlying blackberry fruit in the aroma of this very dark reddish-purple wine. There's more fruit in the flavor, though, brambly, warm and full, with sufficient acidity for balance. It's "Zin-like" to be sure, and enjoyable, but this random match pits it against a strong competitor. (April 28, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Should go where Zin goes. Fine with the vegetarian dish mentioned above.
VALUE: Certainly fair at this local retail price, which is $2 less than I paid at the winery for previous tastings.
WHEN TO DRINK: As a relatively rare wine made in a variety of styles by artisanal producers, it's not easy to speculate about aging generalizations for Norton/Cynthiana. At this point, I would err on the side of drinking it young except perhaps as an experiment.
WEB LINK AND WHERE TO FIND IT: This is the Smith-Berry Website:
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Friday, May 7, 2004