Travels in Argentina wine country: Bodega Norton
By John Schreiner
April 13, 2008
The highway through the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital, to Santiago in Chile is a marvel of engineering as well as an exceptionally scenic drive.
But before there was the highway, there was the Transandine Railway built between 1897 and 1910 to connect the Argentina railroad from Buenos Aires to the Chilean rail network. The ruins of this narrow gauge rail line parallel the highway and may one day return to life. In 2006, there was an agreement between Argentina and Chile to refurbish the line and open by 2010.
Believe it when you see it. This line, climbing through the Andes through a 12,000-foot pass, was built in one of the most difficult railroad terrains in the world. It was abandoned several decades ago, along with nearly all other Argentine railroads.
One of the byproducts of the Transandine Railway is the winery called Bodega Norton, founded about 1895 by Edmund Norton, an English engineer who was one of the builders of the railroad (which was financed by British capital). Norton recognized the Mendoza region’s potential for wine and planted grapes with vines imported from France.
The Norton winery, owned since 1989 by the Austrian crystal magnate, Gernot Langes-Swarovsi, is in much better shape that rail line. It is one of the leading brands in Argentina and is one of the producers leading Argentina’s charge into export markets.
Located half an hour south of Mendoza, this winery offers hourly tours (in English as well as in Spanish), starting in a flashy tasting room with a view of the mountains through which Edmund Norton built his now derelict rail line.
Langes-Swarovski was one of the first foreigners to invest in the Argentine wine industry in the current era, which has seen most leading producers taken over by non-Argentina owners.
Langes-Swarovski has invested heavily to update the winery but has been sensitive to the heritage. The 1919 cellar, with its adobe walls and its curved bamboo roof, remains in use. A vast stock of library wines is retained, with vintages going back at least to the 1970s.
An old and charming tradition has also been continued. Every Thursday, local consumers are permitted to bring their own jugs and fill them with bulk wine at a cost equivalent to about 75 cents for a four-litre container. The revenue from these sales goes into a pool that provides low-interest financing for Norton’s employees. Perhaps it is somewhat paternal but, not surprisingly, Norton employees speak highly of their Austrian owner.
With an annual production of about 1.5 million cases, Norton would rank as a medium-sized producer. Currently, the winery owns 680 hectares (1,700 acres) of vineyards strategically spread across five locations. In another example of the Langes-Swarovski paternalism, the largest of the five vineyards is built around its own town with between 600 and 800 people. The winery provides the housing, the schools and the hospital.
The 15 or so different grape varieties grown in these vineyards even includes Grüner Veltliner, the leading white vine in Austrian and one day, perhaps, a leading white in Argentina.
Norton exports about 10,000 cases a year to British Columbia and Alberta markets, including one of Argentina’s few examples of Sangiovese, the Tuscan red variety that seldom travels well but seems to perform in Argentina’s dry, hot vineyards. At $13, the Norton Sangiovese is good value.
The stars among the Norton reds in the British Columbia market are:
* Norton Malbec Reserva 2005 ($19.99). A classic illustration of why many consider Malbec to be Argentina’s greatest red, this is a dark full-bodied wine. The spicy berry flavours have a Christmas pudding richness. It has a juicy texture and a long finish. 88 points.
* Norton Privada 2005 ($24.99). This is a blended red – 40% Malbec, 30% Cabernet, 30% Merlot. At the winery, the tasting sample was decanted. This is a complex and structured red that benefits from decanting now and will also benefit from more time in the cellar. It is a dark, brooding red with a spicy aroma and notes of prune and dark chocolate on the palate. 89.
Norton has two other premium reds not listed here that might show up from time to time in private channels. Perdriel 2004 is a single vineyard blend heavy on Malbec that shows great elegance. I rated it 91. The very best red (92 points) is another Malbec-heavy blend named Gernot Langes for the winery owner. So far, Norton has only released one vintage, the 2003.
Listed in Ontario for $18 but not here is a refreshing sparkling wine called Cosecha Especial Extra Brut made largely with Chardonnay. Perhaps this is the wine to toast the new Transandine Railway in the unlikely event it ever reopens.
John Schreiner recently visited leading Argentina wineries.