Age: Generally, best within a few years of release. The highest quality wines reach their peak after about 8 years and can remain at their best for a similar period.
Aka: Also known as Cynthian (which is genetically identical to Norton) and in the past Norton was referred to as Virginia Seedling.
Other: Norton is derived from the native American vine Vitis aestivalis and is therefore a different species to Vitis vinifera which accounts for 99% of all wines made today. Because the wine industry is dominated by, and biased towards, Vitis vinifera varieties, Norton is frequently overlooked.
The Norton grape occupies a unique position in the world of wine and has an intriguing story to tell. Referred to variously as “America’s True Grape”, “The Real American Grape” or “The Cabernet of the Ozarks”, it is perhaps the oldest cultivated North American varietal.
It first became commercially available in 1830 and was named after a Virginia physician and viticulturist called Daniel Norton who is credited with the development or discovery of the grape. Its exact origins are unclear, but the majority of its genome is derived from the native American vine species Vitis aestivalis. Modern analysis suggests that one of its parents was a Vitis aestivalis vine and the other was a cross between another native American vine species called Vitis labrusca and the European vine species Vitis vinifera.
After Norton became available it quickly established itself as the main red wine grape of Virginia and raised the State’s wine reputation, which received wide acclaim in the nineteenth century. This success was repeated in Missouri when German settlers embraced the grape and famously achieved worldwide acclaim for Norton when it was declared “Best Wine of All Nations” at a major international exhibition held in Vienna in 1873.
During the Phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century Norton was heralded as the savior of European vineyards and many vines were planted in France, but did not take to the foreign soils. Norton went on to become one of the principal grapes in the American wine industry until prohibition (from 1920 – 1933) changed everything. Only in recent decades has Norton reemerged to claim its rightful position in American viticulture.
There are a couple of dozen native American wine species, but Vitis aestivalis appears to be one of the few capable of making premium quality dry table wines that are comparable to those of their European cousins. Norton is the best representative of Vitis aestivalis and does not display any of the undesirable “Foxy” characteristics (a pronounced musky quality) associated with other American varieties, such as Vitis labrusca.
The grape called Cynthiana, which is genetically identical to Norton, is considered by many to be the same grape. However, some growers believe it to be a variation of a clone of Norton (in viticulture a ‘clone’ is a vine developed from a cutting or bud of another vine) as it tends to ripen a little earlier. It also produces wines that are generally lighter in structure.
Norton is grown in the eastern and Midwestern United States, but is little known outside of these regions. Plantings have been tried in other areas, but have not performed well as the grape is very particular in terms of the soil type and climate it prefers. It is extremely hardy and very resistant to disease; however, one to the factors holding Norton back is that, unlike other vines, it will not produce roots from cuttings so propagation is slow. It also ripens late and has a tendency to produce low yields.
However, when well made it is the equal of, and indistinguishable from, many European wines. It expresses itself differently depending on where it is grown. Aromas of red and black fruits with hints of coffee and chocolate are followed by a range of flavors including raspberry, cherry, pomegranate, blackberry, blackcurrant and plum, along with spicy (clove, cinnamon, pepper) overtones and prominent notes of oak.
The wine is very dark in color and the body is full with a velvet-like texture. Acidity is high and requires careful management on behalf of the winemaker. Tannins are low and consequently most wines are aged in oak for 1 to 2 years to give them structure. They can mellow with age and evolve complex forest floor flavors of truffles and mushroom, while still retaining a bright fruit character.
Good management in the vineyard and the winery is essential for Norton to be at its best. Poorly made or unfocused examples can be quite astringent with an intense grapey flavor. Well made varietal wines have good aging potential and generally reach their peak after about 8 years and can remain at their best for a similar period. Norton also performs very well in blends.
An interesting fact about Norton is that it contains a large amount of the phenolic compound Resveratrol, which is an anti-oxidant thought to have cardiovascular benefits by reducing cholesterol and lipid levels when wine is consumed in moderate quantities.
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