Norton: The (Almost) All American Wine Grape

There are several species of grapes, but the great classic wine grapes are all Vitis vinifera. Maybe that’s because Norton isn’t well known outside the eastern and mid western US. It’s parentage isn’t known exactly, but it’s predominantly Vitis aestivalis with hints of Vitis labrusca and, despite being known as an all-American grape, Vitis vinifera. Growers treat it and Cynthiana as different varietals, though they are genetically indistinguishable, and call it “the Cabernet of the Ozarks.” When I hear something like that, it’s usually a less-worthy grape trying to piggyback on the stature of a noble grape. Not this time. Here’s what Jancis Robinson says about Norton in the The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, “Norton is undoubtedly underrated because of the entrenched bias against non-vinifera varieties … The grapes are acidic, but the wine is indistinguishable by taste from wine made from vinifera grapes.”

It gets better. Norton is tolerant of many fungal diseases, including the common ones in my neck of the woods, and phylloxera. Sounds like a grape I’d like to grow! Well there are at least two drawbacks. First, it’s difficult to propagate from hardwood cuttings. Ok, that would be a nuisance, but it is being grown and propagated, so I don’t think that’s a deal breaker. The deal breaker is that it requires a long growing season. There’s a lot to like about the Puget Sound, but we are limited in the wine grapes that will ripen here.

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2 thoughts on “Norton: The (Almost) All American Wine Grape

  1. TNWT

    There are 218 Norton wineries today in 23 states. Finding that exceptional Norton wine is like kissing a lot of toads to find that prince(ss). After tasting now 104 different Norton wines from sixteen states, we have found a few (6?) exciting Nortons and a handful of other really good wine examples which vary annually due to production whims. Many people want instant wine gratification upon purchase, but here is where that does not work since most Norton wines need to be put away for several years, ~ something most people are not willing or able to do. To date, we’ve found only a few “drink now” Norton wines; as, Westphalia and Peaceful Bend in Missouri and Castle Gruen in Virginia. And wineries that hold back their wines four or five years also consequently charge you more for these wines (Stone Hill Cross J Norton as example). But not to discourage you in Norton wine purchases, you will enjoy even younger Norton wines if you let your bottles rest even for a few weeks after purchase (travel bottle shock) and make sure to let your Norton wine breathe for no less than 40 minutes before serving. Your first sip will smack you of malic acids (+ tannins), but quickly settle down with the second sip, etc. Depending on your travel location, do try the best Norton wines within the following states: White Oaks (AL); Mount Bethel (AR), Three Sister (GA); Century Farms (TN); Elk Creek (KY); Castle Gruen, *Cooper, DuCard, Chrysalis $$(VA); Stone Mountain Cellars (PA), Heinrichshaus, Stone Hill’s Cross J, Montelle, Robller, Peaceful Bend and Westphalia (MO). Please do not compare this wine to California and European vinifera, it’s truly an American wine which reflects our American culture. Doug Frost, a Kansas City wine writer and master sommelier expressed Norton wines best as “powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid and capable of staining teeth or even wineglasses. [The wine is] probably something most drinkers have to learn to love, with its rough and rustic personality often evident.” Another concern for many is the cost of Norton wines. Realize that grape production can be less than one third per acre with Norton grapes as compared to other grape yields because of its small size and extremely seedy fruit. There are other factors involved also, but generally expect to pay $18-$25 per bottle. Most less expensive Norton wines reflect anticipated quality, but here we also have some fine exceptions; as, Horton ($12-$15 VA), St. James ($8-15 MO), and White Oaks ($13 AL). Try to find Norton vineyards with older vines which combine well with more experienced Norton vintners. But here again, we have been pleasantly surprised with new Norton upstarts who make amazing blends to camouflage their young green Nortons. Do yourself a favor by enjoying Todd Kliman’s novel-like-Norton biography, The Wild Vine, with a Norton wine in hand.

  2. Brian

    I have recently found Norton (Cynthiana) in many of our Southern Illinois wineries. As an avid Napa Cabernet drinker, done correctly Norton truly does hold up to the name “Cabernet of the Ozarks”. Two of my favorite in the Shawnee Hills AVA are from Hickory Ridge and Blue Sky Vineyards.

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