In 1873, the international wine community was stunned when a Norton wine was declared the “Best Red of All Nations” at an International competition in Vienna, Austria. At the time many European vineyards were just recovering from Phylloxera, and because of Norton’s relative immunity to disease and pests, this grape was designated as a possible savior to their ravaged vineyards. However, the vine’s intolerance to European soils lead to its quick fall from popularity. Today, Norton thrives in humid southern states, such as Virginia, Missouri as well as Arkansas, where it is referred to as the "Cabernet of the Ozarks".
Norton or Vitis Aestivalis is a native North American grape officially discovered in 1823 by Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton (1794-1842), a physician from Richmond. Dr. Norton cultivated and nurtured this new species in a small plot of land known as Magnolia Farm, just northwest of the city of Richmond, along with 26 other varieties. Modestly named after himself, Norton was not created intentionally, but resulted as a chance of nature through open pollination, possibly between Pinot Meunier and a now extinct hybrid known as Bland.
Shortly after his discovery, Norton was quickly adopted by many growers as a hearty varietal able to yield quality fruit for wine making. Based on sale documents, Norton is one of the oldest native grape varieties commercially used to make wine in North America. In fact, it was sold and used to make wines since 1830 as an inexpensive alternative to importing well-known European vinifera grapes, vines, and wines.
Norton exhibits hints of tart plums, sour cherries, or elderberries and has a spicy nose similar to Syrah. It is stronger in the front and mid-palette and has a velvety finish somewhere between a Merlot and Pinot Noir. Norton is often blended with other grapes like Tannat, Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot to provide a more balanced wine. These blends are still referred to as “Norton” since, by law, as long at 75% of the wine is made from a single grape, you can still label it with the varietal name.
The largest producer of Norton in its home state of Virginia, as well as the Eastern U.S., is Chrysalis Vineyards. The vineyard’s owner, Jennifer McCloud, has made growing quality Norton grapes a personal crusade. Two of their better releases are 2002 Norton - Estate Bottled and 2002 Norton - Locksley Reserve. These wines were awarded an 89 and 88 rating respectively by the Virginia Wine Guide. Another successful Norton producer in Virginia is Horton Vineyards. Horton was the first Virginian winery to produce Norton after prohibition and their last release, 2002 Norton, was awarded a rating of 89 by the Virginia Wine Guide.
Although Norton, was "discovered" in Virginia, it is more popular in the American Midwest, where the grape is sometimes known as Cynthiana. Missouri has a proud wine producing history and was the first federally-approved American viticulture. In the late 19th century, the state was the second largest wine producing state in the United States. Norton has gained wide customer acceptance in Missouri and in 2004-2005, Norton wines won the Governor's Cup for the Best Missouri Wine: Augusta Winery’s 2002 Estate Bottled Norton in 2004 and Mount Pleasant Winery’s 2003 Norton in 2005. Mark Baehmann ofChrysalis Vineyards attributed Norton’s success in Missouri to its ability to produce quality wine while remaining disease resistant and hardy through winter. Another celebrated Missouri Norton is produced by Stone Hill Winery. Park Lukacs designated this wine as one of America's 40 greatest wines. In neighboring Kansas, Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery's Cynthiana won the 2004 Jefferson's Cup as the best wine made in the Midwest. And two of our favorites are produced nearby by Davenport Winery and Kugler's Vineyard.
Norton appears to be gaining popularity elsewhere in the United States. In New Jersey, Valenzano Winery’s Cynthiana won their 2005 Governor's Cup. Approximately 70 wineries in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiania, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsyvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia are making Norton or Cynthiana wine. These numbers should expand as more consumers discover Norton wine. To view some of these wineries visit our Wine 101 section at Wine Compass.
Resources: “Red, White, and Norton” by Tolga Baki of Hillsborough Vineyards (http://www.hillsboroughwine.com) and the Virginia Wine Guide (http://www.virginiawineguide.com).