Norton: Dark Knight of American Wine
This is the first article of a two part profile on the Norton grape. The first article discusses the characteristics of today’s Norton and includes a report on the 2012 Norton Harvest. The next article will focus on Norton winemaking techniques and research into the origins of the grape.
Norton, the oldest commercially grown native American grape, is a red variety with a unique flavor, a dramatic history and a cult-like following. The grape produces some of the best dry red wines in the Midwest. However, even in Missouri, where Norton is the state grape, many locals have never heard of it. Despite being an unsung hero, the number of wineries producing quality Nortons has grown in recent years and the grape continues to inspire wine enthusiasts like no other native variety.
Norton is grown commercially in more than 20 states, from as far south as Florida to Pennsylvania in the north. Missouri has the largest acreage of Norton with more than 300, but Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia claims to have the largest single planting of Norton vines with about 40 acres.
The grape is called Cynthiana in Arkansas. Although some wine enthusiasts say the two grapes are different, studies have shown that Norton and Cynthiana are genetically identical. The flavor profile of this deep purple colored wine includes acid, spice, dark fruit and pomegranates. Other native American grapes can produce sweet or ‘foxy’ flavors, but Norton is very dry, full-bodied and generally improves with aging.
Kansas City based wine expert Doug Frost describes Norton as “powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid and capable of staining teeth or even wineglasses.” Rather than fruit forward and powerful in a New World style of a big Californian Cabernet or an Australian Syrah, Norton lacks their tannic structure and can be like a muscular version of the more classic European red wine styles.
Dave Johnson, from Stone Hill Winery in Missouri and a maker of Norton for more than three decades, compares some Norton flavor characteristics to Italy’s Barbera grape. His winemaking colleague at Stone Hill, Shaun Turnbull, includes spice, clove, cinnamon, leather and truffle notes in the flavor profile of a good Norton. Young Norton’s can be acidic and tart, a characteristic seen by some as a trademark of this wine. Tim Puchta, another veteran Norton winemaker from Adam Puchta Vineyards in Missouri, proudly calls himself a Norton “acid geek.”
“…powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid”
Doug Frost, Kansas City based wine expert describing Norton
Norton is the most expensive non-vinifera, or non-European, wine available to Midwest consumers and usually costs about $20 a bottle. Norton enthusiast Paul Roberts, winemaker at Deep Creek Cellars in Maryland, says prices have as much as quadrupled in recent years and attributes the increase to growing demand. Demand has been driven by a jump in the quality of Norton wines, partly due to winemakers sharing knowledge through universities and state sponsored groups like the Missouri Wine Technical Group.
See related story: Inside Look at Missouri Wine Technical Group
The relative expense of a bottle of Norton is also a result of the extra time and money required to produce a quality Norton. Even in its Midwest heartland, the Norton is still a niche market and easily outsold by dry red wines from California and France and by locally made sweet wines. At Belvoir Winery in Liberty, Missouri, which sells a selection of six wines, dry to sweet, all made from local grapes, the Norton makes up about 10% of wine sales.
Norton grapes are small in size compared to other varietals and are often harvested later in the season. However, the ripening powers of this summer’s long drought mean that many Norton growers are harvesting their grapes about two weeks early.
At Westphalia Vineyards in the south-east corner of Missouri, winemaker Terry Neuner and his family have just finished harvesting their four acres of Norton. Terry Neuner says after a year of severe frosts and drought, their Norton crop is ‘way better than we ever expected.” Neuner was anticipating half the volume of last year’s crop yield but says it’s very likely they’ll have more, or about 20 tons of grapes.
At Jowler Creek Vineyard near Kansas City, winemaker Colleen Gerke is also optimistic. Their two acres of Norton vines – the oldest are eight years old and the youngest two years – are irrigated so the drought wasn’t an issue. Earlier in the year they protected their grapes from frost damage by spraying them with water and nutrients in the middle of the night. Based on this year’s growing season, Gerke says she expects ‘epic” fruit when they harvest their Norton during the middle of September. ‘All and all, this should be some of the highest quality fruit ever from our vineyard,” she says.