In hard times, Argentina's Bodega Norton wines excel

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2008

After years of drinking more wine, and more expensive wine every year, Americans are reacting to the economic downturn by drinking at least as much, but cheaper wine, shop owners say.

But that doesn't have to mean drinking worse wine. As I've said many times, anybody can buy a good $50 wine. What takes skill is buying a good bottle for a lot less.

An example is the wines of Argentina's Bodega Norton. It's been valued for years for making a wide range of good wines for under $20 a bottle. And that includes its reserve wines.

It makes sense. Argentina has relatively cheap land, relatively cheap labor. And, especially in the Andean foothills, where most of the country's wine is made, it has abundant water that can be tapped by merely opening a trench to the mountains.

Norton is in the province of Mendoza, with vineyards in mineral-rich soils 2,700 feet up the Andes, so it gets the cool nights and warm days that produce good wines. It was founded in 1895 by Edward Norton, an English engineer who quit his railroad job, imported vines from France and became one of Argentina's biggest wine pioneers. Today it is owned by Austrian entrepreneur Gernot Langes-Swarovski.

Most of the work at Norton is done by hand. For about 2,800 acres of vines, Norton employs more than 150 families of vineyard workers, many of whom have lived there for generations.

Vineyard manager Pablo Minatelli divides the vineyards into small parcels, treating each individually so the best grapes and wine can go into the top brands.

For all those reasons, Norton's red wines are rich and ripe, without massive tannins or astringent acids.

They're not made on the cheap. The Privada, a malbec blend, gets 16 months of aging in new French oak barrels. The Reserva gets 10 months of aging in new French oak barrels.

Good wines at good prices. Just the thing to tide us over until the next economic bubble.

Highly recommended

2005 Bodega Norton Privada, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina (malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon): aromas and flavors of anise and violets, ripe tannins, smooth; $16.

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