A Sit Down With Bodega Norton

Nov 29, 2007

I sat down with Michael Halstrick, president, and Jorge Riccitelli, chief winemaker, of Argentina’s Bodega Norton yesterday, as they were in town to promote their new icon wine.

Halstrick, whose family also owns the Swarovski crystal company, has steadily piloted Norton’s growth over the past few years. The winery now produces over 1.5 million cases annually and is doing better business in the U.S. than ever before—180,000 cases annually (up from around 40,000 a few years ago).

“If you’re in the wine business in Argentina and you haven’t been growing, you’re doing something wrong,” joked Halstrick.

Indeed, Argentina has been on a run over the last five years (you can reference my current annual report here), and the number of higher-end bottlings has also proliferated.

Bodega Norton’s entry into the triple-digit price tag fray is their debut release of the 2003 Bodega Norton Gernot Langes Luján de Cuyo. The wine is a blend of 70 percent Malbec, sourced from Norton’s oldest vines in their Lunlunta vineyard, along with some 50-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines from their La Colonia vineyard and a drop of young Cabernet Franc vines.

The wine, named for Halstrick’s stepfather, also marks the first time Bodega Norton’s winemaker has used Cabernet Franc.

“I wanted to make a wine different from the Norton range,” explained Riccitelli. “I also wanted to make a wine that was both approachable now, but could also age, so that’s why I added the Cab Franc, for its tannins.”

Riccitelli got some advice on his Cabernet Franc from the technical director of Cheval-Blanc, the Bordeaux property that produces one of the world’s top versions.

“When he visited in ’02, he gave me advice on when to harvest, because the window of opportunity to get really ripe tannins is very small for Cabernet Franc,” said Riccitelli.

The wine is impressive, with alluring toast, layers of raspberry and currant fruit, and a lovely underlying edge of loam. Also prominent is the Cabernet Franc, even though there’s only 5 percent in the blend. The finish shows a lingering note of spicy tobacco and gravel, not unlike a ripe St.-Emilion. (A formal review based on a blind tasting of the wine will appear soon.)

As is typical for icon wines, the Gernot Langes is both pricey (set to retail at $110 per bottle) and limited (only 665 cases produced, with 150 coming to the U.S.). No, it’s not your everyday wine. And because of its low production, it won’t have much of an impact on the image of Argentine wine among consumers.

But it does join a steadily growing group of high-end wines from Argentina, including the single-vineyard wines from Achával-Ferrer and Viña Cobos as well as Luca’s Nico bottling, Nicolas Catena’s Catena Zapata and Malbec Argentino and more. Individually they have little impact, but as a group they can exert enough influence to steadily improve the image and quality of Argentina’s wines.

All of which is a double-edged sword of course: Increasing competition resulting in better quality being the benefit, steadily increasing prices being the detriment.

Argentina

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