Sunday, March 07, 2010

Stage 3: Augusta to Dutzow

Heading east on winding Hwy. 94 towards Augusta, the woodlands look flammable. Gentle rolling hillsides of white oak and her associates are parsed out on the landscape, interrupted by wide stretches of agricultural fields in the valleys. Hundreds of acres of restorable woodlands here, an Outer Ozark Border region almost entirely in private ownership.

Approaching the steep, quaint town of Augusta (est. 1836), row after row of tidy and well-pruned grapevines stand sentry on the outskirts of town. Before Leonard Harold, a follower of Daniel Boone, founded the river town, the area was inhabited by French fur traders and was a popular stop on a Native American trail. At the time of the 1830s survey, the area now known as Augusta was an excellent landing site along the Missouri River. By 1855, at the time of incorporation, Augusta was named Mt. Pleasant, though the river landing was commonly called Augusta Bend.

During an 1872 flood event, the Missouri River channel bend filled with sediment and the river changed its course, effectively cutting off the settlement of Augusta from the river. Railroads soon followed, capitalizing on the new land between the town and the Missouri River. Today, cyclists can ride the original KATY railroad line for 200+ miles from St. Charles clear across to the far side of the state while cutting through the heart of Missouri's Weinstrasse. Stop off at old railroad towns like Augusta for good food, wine, microbreweries, bed and breakfasts, and small bike shops to fill most of your bicycling needs.

Like Hermann, Augusta thrived on wine production before the days of Prohibition. Since the 1800s, Augusta's wine grapes have long been recognized for their superiority. Because of this long history of viticulture in the Augusta Region and the distinctive terroir which gave rise to Augusta's fine wines, the area became the first designated American Viticultural Area in 1980. The 15 square mile Augusta Region was on the map before Napa Valley.

So I found it appropriate to invite my dear friend Judy from my undergraduate years to meet me in Augusta, one of the original wine towns, for her first introduction to Missouri wines. Judy recently moved to the Soulard District in St. Louis, bringing with her from her residence in Europe a vast collection of incredible Bordeaux (she has cases of aging St. Emilion and Haut-Brion of various vintages), French pinot noir, Italian wines, some Eastern European wines, and even a nice selection of champagnes. Her boxed up collection fills a large room in her 1910 mansion. Missing from her wine selection are American wines. It is therefore incumbent upon me to introduce her to a good Missouri Norton and solid Willamette Valley pinot noir.

Of my favorite Missouri Nortons, Augusta Winery's 2005 Norton ranks in the top 3-- big, yet smooth, clean finish, heavy oak, with none of the acrid sourness that some less experienced vintners produce. Augusta Winery ages their some of their wines in barrels made of staves of green white oak, once used-white oak, and twice used-white oak. Some are also aged in French oak. This -along with the grapes and the minerality- helps to produce a beautiful, mellow Norton. Unfortunately, Augusta has sold out of the 2005 vintage and is now serving the 2007.

A trim young man with piercing eyes held court at the well-appointed tasting bar yesterday. He's very serious about the wine he serves, and, unlike in some other Missouri wineries, the barista also drinks dry red wine. Wanting Judy to have the same positive experience I've had with Augusta wines, I asked about the '05 Norton. The barista admitted that the '05 vintage was top notch, and that he reluctantly sold the last case to a customer back in October. Like me, he wanted to cellar some of it, but kept breaking into the bottles that were designated for aging. He's now plowing through his case of the '06 vintage, and suspects none will be saved for years to come.

At Augusta, ask for the special Norton tasting, which will allow you to taste the wine in customary wine glasses with a thick lip and compare it to Norton in a specially made Norton goblet designed in recent years by Reidel. With the $6 tasting fee, you can take home the Reidel glass which retails for $15. Just as Willamette Valley pinot noir tastes completely different in a Reidel pinot noir glass (compared to wine served in a -perfectly fine- wine glass made by Libby), the 2007 Norton is also affected by the bowl size and shape, the thin lip, the placement of the wine on the tongue. The Reidel Norton glasses are brilliant, and an appropriate choice for such a nice wine. I particularly appreciate the tiny, etched hand-scripted "Norton" on the base of the glass.

The 2006 Chambourcin is reminiscent of a bouquet of stargazer lilies, that floral nose with a cheerful light berry and buttery finish. Augusta Winery also makes a lovely Norton/Chambourcin/St. Vincent blend. Judy left Augusta with a case of wine--6 Norton, 3 Chambourcin, and 3 of the blend, and two Norton glasses. We joked about the likelihood of cellaring it for years, when really the cellaring would only last a few weeks. When nice wine like Augusta Winery's can be found 45 minutes from your doorstep, you can always go back for more to cellar. However, I reminded her about the status of the 05 Norton which is no more....

Up the hill from Augusta Winery rests a sprawling complex of pale pink buildings belonging to Mount Pleasant Winery. An enormous tasting room with a wrap around bar is filled with walls of Mount Pleasant wines. A vast departure from the small, intimate Augusta Winery, Mount Pleasant's tasting room was packed to the gills with groups of fancy women and a constantly revolving occupancy.

Mount Pleasant produces a wide variety of sweet wines; their best seller is a sweet wine called Ten Bucks, the label of which is adorned with dancing deer. We sidled up to the bar to taste the three dry reds they offered. Maybe the Norton had turned, and maybe all the people asking for "sweet wines only" were more common than those of us in the dry red camp. The Norton was thin, and a little sour with none of the heavy oak that normally characterizes this Missouri classic. On the other hand, Mount Pleasant's Cabernet Sauvignon was lovely, big, complex with a buttery finish. It was really quite nice, but way out of our price range.

Unlike most Missouri wineries, Mount Pleasant charges a 5$ tasting fee (which includes the price of the glass), so if you're only interested in two wines, just get extra pours of those two. Similar in scale and commercialism to Oak Glenn Winery in Hermann, Mount Pleasant likely attracts large crowds from St. Louis during spring and summer weekends.

Set out on Hwy. 94 westbound to visit Louis P. Balducci Vineyards, lovely buildings on a vast site that has been cleared of all trees. With names like Chiaretto, Aria, and Sonata, the wines here are heavy on the sweet side of the scale. Unfortunately (for all of us yesterday), none of the Balducci Vineyard wines are made to resemble Italian vintages. Once again, I suspect that the two dry red wines they offer, Aria (Chambourcin/St. Vincent blend)and Norton, had been opened in 2009 and languished awaiting those of us looking only for dry red wines. I think both had turned.

Needing a meal, we decided to mistrust the tasting bar Norton and settle in to a nice deep dish vegetarian pizza loaded with tomatoes and a bottle of Norton, labeled as "Missouri table wine." The restaurant is nice enough, and the fresh bottle of Norton was better than Mt. Pleasant's though no match for Augusta's.

According to the Norton Wine Travelers from South Carolina, Blumenhof Winery in nearby Dutzow produces one of the finest Norton-Cynthiana's in Missouri. They've tasted over 66 Nortons and left their recommendations for me to try. I looked for the Alabama Norton they liked so much when I was in Alabama, and I've tried the Illinois Norton which made one of their lists.

Strike three for a fresh bottle of 2008 Cynthiana at Blumenhof. The winery is nestled in a heavily wooded area with ample patio seating, a rich dark wood tasting room, and very affordable wines. I tried the Cynthiana and Chambourcin, and while I wasn't impressed with either, I bought a Cynthiana expecting the same results as at Balducci Winery. I'm blaming the bad taste on oxidation.

We didn't go to Montelle Vineyards, also owned by Augusta, nor did we visit Sugar Creek in Defiance or any of the St. Charles wineries, but Augusta convinced Judy that our wineries are worth exploring, even if you hit a bad apple.

And so, I plan to cellar the 2008 Cynthiana from Blumenhof, but will most likely break into the Augusta on the first float trip of the season, a true cause for celebration.


TNWT said...

Like your writing style (and your knowledge of Norton wines). Here's crossing my fingers that my wife and I get to meet you at the 2010 Norton Wine Festival. We learn a lots from your comments. TNWT

Allison Vaughn said...

Hey, thanks! There's a great new book that just came out called The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman, and it's the story of Norton! I'm riveted by it. For years, I've known the Jefferson story, but never about Dr. Norton himself. My library has the book, so maybe yours does, too!