Ask someone to name America’s own wine and you are sure to get “Zinfandel” in reply. But there are two other wines that I think have more right to the title and one is Norton.
Norton is a true American grape variety because it originated in America rather than being brought from Europe as Zinfandel was. Now there are a great many grape vines that are indigenous to the America’s and some are used to make wine, but few of them make a wine of quality.
Bear with me while I briefly explain about grape species. There are many different species of the genus Vitis (vines with climbing tendrils), and most species have many varieties. So the European wine grape is the species Vitis Vinifera which contains all the classic wine varieties such as Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel etc. The grape vines found growing wild all over the America’s are from various different species and although some, such as Concord, are used to make wine they are not – to be polite - wines that critics like Robert Parker bother with. Most of them have a strange taste called ‘foxy’ reminiscent of wet fur.
Norton, though, makes a good wine that is indistinguishable from those made from Vitis Vinifera. It is a black grape that makes a dark red wine with a deep flavour of black plums with a velvety texture.
The origins of Norton are not clear, and it is complicated by the variety being also known as Cynthiana. It seems Cynthiana is a clone of Norton, growers can detect slight differences between the two, and Cynthiana grape produce a lighter bodied wine.
The variety dates back to around 1820 when it first appeared in the garden of a Dr Daniel Norton in Virginia. Whether the Doctor deliberately bred the variety or nurtured a wild seedling is not known, but it grew well and resisted diseases and so by 1830 Norton’s Virginia Seedling was available from commercial plant nurseries.
Norton was planted in the town of Hermann, Missouri in 1840 and quickly became its most important variety, spreading throughout the state. In 1873 a Missouri Norton was judged to be the “best red wine of all nations” in an international competition in Vienna. In the late 1800's the same variety was found in Arkansas where it was given the name Cynthiana. DNA testing has recently shown them to be identical. Norton is classified as one of just four varieties belonging to the species Vitis Aestivalis – or ‘summer grape’ that is native to the northern American continent.
Nowadays Norton is grown in at least 16 US states with the majority in Virginia and Missouri – where it is recognised as the Official Grape of the State. You may find the wine labelled as either Cynthiana or Norton and sometimes both names appear.
I rarely see Norton wines on sale but I buy them whenever I do, and I have particularly enjoyed Norton from the Augusta Winery in Missouri and Horton in Virginia.
If you like bold flavoursome red wines and you see a Norton wine, do yourself a favour and buy a bottle.
Have you encountered Norton or Cynthiana wines or vines? Share your experiences on our forum by clicking here.
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.
Grapes Vines and Wines
Jancis Robinson's book, referred to above, was a revelation when published. It was the very first consumer book that focused on grape varieties and how thay affected the taste of wine. It covers almost every wine grape by name and synonym. Maybe its a bit geeky and its a little out of date with the latest DNA research but it is a serious reference book for serious wine loves. Needless to say I find it indispensible.
The Wild Vine
Todd Kliman's book is about how the author came across a Norton wine and his serach for more information about the variety. He covers the history and spends time in Virginia with the owner of the worlds largest Norton vineyard.