On a hunt for Norton I visited Röbller Vineyards. It is situated just outside New Haven, on the south bank of the Missouri River between Washington and Hermann, Missouri. Driving up a gravel lane from Highway 100 you come to a ridge where the tasting room sits with great views down over the estate vineyards.
The winery takes its name from the beginning and end of owner-winemaker Robert Mueller’s name. He worked in the metal construction business, one of three companies worldwide that manufactured small CO2 capsules to inflate life-jackets. Bob’s interest in home winemaking led eventually to his wife, Lois, and him buying this prime property in 1987. Their first vineyards were planted in 1988 and while these matured they bought grapes from nearby growers with similar terroir.
Röbller was around the 35th winery licensed in the State and achieved early success. Bob Mueller showed me the golden Governors Cup awarded to his 1991 vintage Norton Reserve in 1993. “We had a couple of barrels that we’d kept longer, so we called it reserve,” he said.
Of their 16 acres of vineyards three are planted with Norton. Overall production is around 2,000 cases a year. “We’re a small family operation,” Rob said. “We have two full time employees, plus part-timers.”
Norton is notoriously high in acid. I wanted to know how he managed to make such a softly approachable wine from this difficult grape. “Well, the acid is malic, so malic fermentation converts that to softer lactic acids. But we also lose acidity through barrel aging – the 2009 had up to 28 months in Missouri wood, and then we bottle aged it for another year. The yeasts also matter, we use a couple — they’re not the ones recommended for Norton, but they work for us. Another important factor is the fining agents, and we use a particular gelatine.”
It was clear from speaking with Bob Mueller that he had investigated every aspect of the business before making his decisions. He doesn’t use screwcaps but had looked at all the options on closures, had tested them on his bottling line and found that some didn’t conform to the dimensions they were supposed to, others shed cork debris and plastic closures just jammed his machinery. He’s chosen the technical ‘DIAM’ closure that is guaranteed against TCA, the cause of the fault known as ‘corked’. “All the time closure salesmen are offering me cheaper options,” he says. “I tell them, I’m not interested; I want only the best.”
And screwaps? “I’d have to change my bottling line machinery, and be limited in my choice of bottles. There’s no benefit.”
Bob takes me down to his cellar, dug down 11 feet into the hillside under his tasting room. Rob’s industry background shows in his love and ability to adapt and work with metals. “I bought these milk tanks. They got cooling mechanisms and they’re all stainless steel yet cost a third of a similar wine tank.” So Rob has made supports to hold them vertical to save space. Then there’s the bottling line he’s fitted together from separate components, and another bottling machine sold off by a large winery that is in parts and which he’s itching to get to work with.
Above us are wooden beams supporting planks flooring the tasting room. “I rescued those from old houses being demolished in St Louis,” said Bob. “They’re well over 100 years old.”
Rob has a enthusiastic gleam in his eye, lots of tales to tell and he’s a joy to talk with. While I have just discovered Röbller it is clear that it is well known and there is a constant stream of visitors arriving to taste and purchase.
Of course they make a range of wines to suit all palates, but I tasted the 2009 Norton which I loved for its soft fruity European style elegance. There is good structure with wooding supporting from the background and it has a long finish and is without the rough acidity sometimes found in Nortons.
Röbller is one of six wineries on the Hermann Wine Trail with events throughout the year – see www.hermannwinetrail.com
275 Robller Vineyard Rd.
New Haven, MO 63068
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.
Disclosure: Tasting is complimentary at Robbler Vineyards. Peter F May travelled there at his own expense