Petit Manseng grape, I recently spent some time in Virginia Wine country with the Taste Camp group. I had been looking for an excuse to get down to Virginia not only to visit my brother, who moved there very recently, but also to track down a wine made from a grape that I had read about called Norton. I missed out when the Wine Blogger's Conference was there last year so when I saw that Taste Camp was essentially giving me a second chance, I jumped at the opportunity.
A few years ago I read Todd Kliman's book The Wild Vine which is a fascinating account of the history of the Norton grape as well as the history of a modern winemaker in northern Virginia who is intensely passionate about the grape and who really evangelizes for it in the United States. It's a fascinating read and ever since I finished it I've been hoping for an opportunity to make it down to Virginia and try some wines made from it. While the grape is perhaps most firmly established in Missouri, Virginia does have a substantial amount of acreage devoted to it and I had expected that some of the wineries we would be interacting with might bring some along. To my surprise (and, let's face it, disappointment), none of the wineries who were participating in Taste Camp brought any Norton-based wines. I wasn't about to come all this way and not get the one thing I had set out for, though, so once again my wife and I had to go off-menu to track down some Norton wines. Before we get to those, though, I'd like to take a brief look at the grape itself and its history.
The Norton grape is named for Dr. Daniel Norton, a Virginia physician who grew grapes on his farm as a hobby. In addition to growing grapes, Norton was also interested in creating new grape varieties. Some of these new grapes were created by deliberate cross-pollination between two different vines while others were the result of natural cross-pollination by vines that happened to be planted in close proximity to one another. It appears that the Norton grape was the result of the latter process, which means that its exact parentage is difficult to tease out. In a book (or possibly a sales catalogue) published in 1830 (the year of Norton's commercial introduction), William Prince, the horticulturist who first marketed the Norton vine, indicates that Norton resulted from a planted seed of a now extinct vine known as Bland (named for a certain Colonel Bland and not as a commentary on its flavor characteristics) which was likely pollinated by a Pinot Meunier vine. Prince ostensibly received this information directly from Norton himself which means that Dr. Norton believed that this was the true parentage of his namesake grape.
This story is recounted in a 2004 article on the Norton grape, whose authors don't buy it. They maintain that since Norton so closely resembles other aestivalis vines, the more likely explanation is that a Bland vine was pollinated by a nearby aestivalis vine, and not by Pinot Meunier. In 2009, a research team conducted DNA analysis on Norton in order to see whether its exact parentage could be determined. The team was unable to find a parent-match within their grape database, but they were able to rule out Pinot Meunier as a parent. Their analysis also confirmed the aestivalis connection, indicating that its DNA profile was consistent with what a vinifera x aestivalis hybrid should look like.
Norton's origins have been further obscured by the claims of a certain F.W. Lemosy who maintains that his father, Dr. F.A. Lemosy, actually discovered the Norton vine growing wild on Cedar Island in the James River in Richmond, Virginia. Lemosy maintains that his father told Dr. Norton about this vine that he had found which produced excellent fruit, which prompted Norton to find the vine, dig it up and plant it on his own farm. While something like this may well have happened, it is unlikely that the plant in question was Norton itself. For starters, Lemosy maintains that this happened around 1835, which is a full five years after Norton was made available for commercial sale by Norton and Prince. In addition, the DNA analysis referenced above clearly shows vinifera DNA in the Norton vine which would be difficult to account for in a wild vine grown on an island in the US.
Norton's genetic and familial history may be murky and unclear (except for its relation to the Cynthiana grape, which it is genetically identical to), but its history as a wine-making grape is certainly not. After its release in 1830, it quickly became very popular in the eastern United States. It's important to remember that at this time, phylloxera was still a mystery and while growers in the US didn't understand why the vinifera vines they planted kept dying, the fact of the matter was that they were dying. The only grapes that were able to survive and flourish were native American grapes or hybrids, most of which possessed the unpleasant "foxy" taste and aroma that so many wine drinkers found distasteful. Norton was (and still is) unique in that it possesses virtually none of those flavors. It is also resistant to a variety of vine diseases other than phylloxera and is able to tolerate the hot and humid growing seasons of the eastern US as far south as northeastern Georgia (it's also quite cold hardy and resistant to frost damage, which is always a problem on the east coast no matter how far south you go).
Norton was planted widely on the east coast and also further inland in places like Missouri and Arkansas. It reached the apex of its fame in 1873 at the Vienna World Exposition when a Missouri wine made from it won a gold medal. The wine in question prompted noted wine critic Henry Vizetelly to remark that Missouri Norton would one day rival the great wines of Europe. Alas, that day hasn't come and we have Prohibition to thank for it. Grape growers who had planted Norton began pulling up their vines in order to plant Concord grapes which they could sell for juice or jelly production and by the end of Prohibition, few Norton vines were left. Norton wasn't widely replanted following Prohibition because the Phylloxera riddle had been solved by then, meaning that winemakers interested in making European style wines could actually plant European vines now rather than hybrids or native grapes. A stigma began to form regarding these "inferior" grapes, regardless of their actual qualities, and plantings of Norton dwindled.
It's hard to call what has happened to the Norton grape in recent years a renaissance, but interest in it has definitely increased. In his 1985 book The Wines of America, noted American wine historian Leon D. Adams called Norton "the best of all native American red-wine grapes." The most recent edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine says that Norton is "arguably the only variety of American Vine Species origin making a premium quality wine." As mentioned above, Todd Kliman has written an entire book on Norton and its history in the United States, and though his tone is more journalistic, the fact that there's enough material and substance for an entire book on the grape must speak to some kind of interest. Despite all of that, though, none of the wineries representing Norton's birth-state brought a Norton wine to any of the group tastings at Taste Camp and in order to try one I had to take a side-trip to Chrysalis Vineyards, which was the winery more or less at the center of Kliman's The Wild Vine.
website, you're instantly greeted by the (apparently trademarked) phrase "Norton, the real American grape." Chrysalis boasts the single largest planting of Norton in the world, though it's difficult to find an exact planting figure (Wikipedia's estimate of 69 acres doesn't jive with Chrysalis's claim that they have 71 acres under vine total, given the number of other wines that Chrysalis has available for purchase). I didn't get a chance to chat with anyone at the winery or try any of their other wines as I was dashing between various Taste Camp events, but I was able to pick up two different bottles of Norton from them. The first was their basic 2009 Norton which retails for $17 in their tasting room. In the glass this wine was a deep purple ruby color. The nose was fairly intense with black cherry, black plum, blueberry and smoke aromas. On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity and medium tannins. There were flavors of black cherry, tart cherry, smoke, meat, spice and blackberry. It also had a kind of sour cherry pit or cranberry kind of taste that I'm used to seeing in many of the red hybrid wines that I try. Overall I thought this wine was fairly interesting and well-balanced. It is very fruit-forward, but the fruit isn't jammy or sweet. If I were comparing this to other pure native American grape-based wines I've had, this would win in a runaway. Since my research is telling me that this is more likely a hybrid grape, those are what I'm really comparing it to, and it stacks up pretty well to those wines as well. It doesn't have the depth and complexity of a vinifera based wine, but it is similar to something like Marechal Foch or Chambourcin.
Spirited Gourmet. It's a Port style wine made in the Hill Country of Texas, which seems to be located in central Texas, just over the curl and to the east of the panhandle. This is a 500mL bottle from the 2007 vintage at Dickson winery called "Quinta la Cruz" and it retails for around $50. I was told that this was 100% Norton, but the bottle doesn't say and I can't find anything online about this wine, so take that with a grain of salt, I guess. In the glass this wine was an opaque inky black color with a narrow brown rim. The nose was very intense with raisin, prune, dried cherry, burnt sugar and rose aromas. There was also a bizarre acetone kind of note that blew off somewhat but was still present even a few days after pulling the cork. On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with high acidity. It was medium sweet, though very tart on the attack, and the alcohol (18% abv) was a bit hot and out of balance. There were flavors of dried cherry, dried cranberry, raisins and prunes. The wine was enjoyable enough, if not terrifically complex, but the price point on it is much too high. It is interesting and different but $50 for 500 mL is about double what I'd feel comfortable paying for something like this.