Norton: The Dark Knight Part II
This is the second article of a two-part profile on the Norton grape. This article discusses Norton winemaking techniques, research into its genetic origins and the history of the variety. The first Norton article in Midwest Wine Press focused on characteristics of today’s Norton and included a report on the 2012 harvest.
‘…this dark orphan created a stir wherever it took root.”
Paul Roberts, Norton enthusiast and winemaker at Deep Creek Cellars
Many winemakers are not surprised their Norton fruit is in good shape this year despite temperature fluctuations that were erratic, even by Midwestern standards. Norton is exceptionally well-adapted to the extreme cold, heat and humidity of the Midwest.
Some grape growers say it can be tough to get Norton vines established, but once they start to mature, the vines are very vigorous and there are reports of Norton reaching heights of ten meters! However, regardless of how vigorous and well adapted Norton is, it can be difficult to make into quality wine.
Cory Bomgaars, head winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Missouri, with the smile of someone who knows, says, ‘Everything about it has issues – it’s a challenging grape to grow!”
One challenge with Norton is controlling acid levels. Moderating acidity starts in the vineyard by ensuring all the leaves on the vine canopy receive an even amount sunlight, says winemaker, Tim Pingleton in The Crafting of Norton Wine–A Primer. Bomgaars adds, ‘the fruit is really sensitive to shading so definitely it’s a labor intensive grape because you have to have good sun exposure.”
Carbonic maceration, a winemaking technique in which grapes are fermented whole – rather than being crushed first – in a carbon-dioxide rich environment, can also be used to knock out acidic tartness.
It’s a technique that’s being used to make Norton by Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia. Paul Roberts, Norton enthusiast and winemaker at Deep Creek Cellars in Maryland, says one of the best Norton wines he’s ever tasted was produced experimentally with carbonic maceration by Chrysalis.
Another challenge with Norton is the juice content which is less than other grapes. Jacob Holman, a winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, who also hosts Norton Workshops as President of Missouri Wine Technical Group, says a method he uses to boost the juice quantity is reverse bleeding. This is the opposite of a French technique called saignée, a technique of bleeding off the juice after crushing the grapes to reduce the liquid content of very juicy grapes. Holman does the opposite and holds back some of the Norton juice from fermentation and then adds it later to increase the liquid content.
Norton’s small berry size and the tendency of many growers to reduce the number of grape clusters per vine to maximize fruit quality means yields at harvest time are usually less than yields for other varieties. According to the report, Crop Profile for Grapes in Missouri, by G. S. Smith and S. A. Becker, the average yield for Norton grapes in Missouri is 3.5 tons per acre compared to 6-8 tons per acre for French-American hybrid grapes.
Norton’s distinctive taste, its historic significance and its rise, fall and resurgence as a quality red wine, have made the grape a muse for wine writers. Norton has inspired articles and books full of poetic prose that sometimes read like eulogies. In Norton, America’s True Grape, Paul Roberts writes: ‘…this dark orphan created a stir wherever it took root. That mysterious air – its impossibly deep, nearly black robe; its velvety texture; its penetrating aroma and flavor – definitely helped to spread its fame.”
In his book about Norton and the history of American wine, The Wild Vine, journalist, Todd Kliman pens: ‘…it was as if what I was drinking was an embodiment of the moment, the mystery, a correlative to our primal condition. It was dark, it was earthy; there was something wild, something alive, in the glass.”
Danene Beedle, Marketing Director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board describes Norton as ‘a true American grape varietal.” For many other hybrid varieties bred from European and American grapes, like Chambourcin and Seyval Blanc, the French hybridizers sought to emulate the old world grape flavors. By contrast, the Norton hybrid, developed by Virginia grape breeder Daniel Norton in about 1820 is thought to be predominantly derived from the North American species Vitis aestivalis.
Norton’s discovery of the new species was a breakthrough for American winemakers east of the Rockies because it was a grape that could survive the extreme climate and make quality dry wine. However, the Norton grape’s exact genetic origins remain a mystery.
One grape enthusiast to come up with a theory explaining Norton’s family tree is Cliff Ambers, winemaker and grape-breeder at Chateau Z Vineyard in Virginia. After ten years hybridizing different species of wild American grapes, Ambers has proposed a breeding “formula” for the Norton grape. He says one of the missing ‘parents” of the grape could be the American variety, Vitis cinerea, but might also involve Vitis labrusca and/or Vitis cordifolia. The details of his research are to be unveiled in an upcoming issue of the UK’s Journal of Wine Research.
See related story: Grape Breeders Hypothesis Could Reveal Norton Grape Origins
Daniel Norton’s enthusiasm for the grape helped spread its vines across the Midwest. In a letter quoted by Ambers in his Musings of a Grape Breeder, Norton writes: ‘The Norton’s seedling grape will certainly return a most astonishing yield to the cultivator. In France, if its properties were understood, it would supply the place of much of that useless trash.”
Norton’s brazen words later proved prophetic. When the phylloxera virus struck the ‘trashy” French wine industry, Norton root-stock from the Midwest was used to improve the French vinifera’s disease resistance and saved the industry.
In Missouri, Norton became a cornerstone of a burgeoning U.S. wine industry. In The Wild Vine, Kliman writes that by the 1860s, Missouri was the number one grape growing state. By the late 1800s Missouri had up to 7,000 acres of vines – according to an estimate based on limited records by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. By comparison, Missouri Wine says 1,700 acres of vines grow in Missouri today.
Norton achieved world-wide fame in 1873 when a Stone Hill Winery Norton won a gold medal at an international wine competition in Vienna. However, by the early 20th century, Missouri’s wine industry and its production of Norton wine were in steep decline. Kliman says one main reason was cheap competition: “Growers in California could produce a pound of grapes at half the cost of a pound in Missouri.” Then in 1919, Prohibition destroyed the Missouri wine industry.
In the late 1960s, Norton began a slow comeback that Kliman describes as ‘Norton’s return from the dead.” He says Missouri’s Stone Hill Winery, and later Virginia’s Horton Winery and Chrysalis Vineyards, led Norton’s resurgence.
By the early 1990s, Norton was starting to surprise the wine establishment again. In 1993, Gourmet wine columnist Gerald Asher, reported tasting some ‘quite delicious” Stone Hill Norton. Asher wrote a detailed review of Missouri’s wine industry that Roberts says was the first significant discussion of Norton in a national periodical for more than a century. Asher wrote, ‘[Norton] might yet do for Missouri what Cabernet Sauvignon has done for California.”
Missouri winemakers are still waiting for that day but they have reason to be optimistic. The amount of Norton under cultivation continues to increase in Missouri where Norton acreage is up more than 20% in the last five years, according to Missouri Wine. More importantly, local winemakers and enthusiasts say the number of wineries making quality Nortons has risen significantly.
Some of the “dark knight’s” good deeds in 2012 are listed below.
Thanks to Cliff Ambers, grape-breeder at Chateau Z Vineyard; Boris Bauer, ‘Norton Wine Traveler’ ; and Paul Roberts, author and winemaker at Deep Creek Cellars, for information and inspiration that helped write this article.
Award Winning Nortons in 2012.
BEST OF CLASS 2009 Cynthiana, St. James Winery, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
CHAIRMAN’S AWARD (UNANIMOUS GOLD) 2009 Norton/Cynthiana, Montelle Winery, Riverside International Wine Competition
CHAIRMAN’S AWARD (UNANIMOUS GOLD) 2008 Estate Bottled Norton, Stone Hill Winery, Riverside International Wine Competition
CBC 2009 Estate Bottled Norton, Stone Hill Winery, Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition
DOUBLE GOLD 2008 Estate Bottles Norton, Stone Hill Winery, Tasters Guild International Wine Competition
DOUBLE GOLD 2011 Norton, Missouri State University, Indy International Wine Competition
GOLD 2009 Estate Bottled Norton, Augusta Winery, Riverside International Wine Competition
GOLD 2008 Estate Bottled Norton, Stone Hill Winery, Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition
GOLD Norton Estate, Adam Puchta Winery, Mid-American Wine Competition
GOLD Norton Owners Reserve, Noboleis Vineyards, Mid-American Wine Competition
GOLD Norton, Stone Hill Winery, Mid-American Wine Competition
GOLD Norton, White Rose Winery, Lone Star International Wine Competition
GOLD Norton/Cynthiana, St. James Winery, Indy International Wine Competition
For a full list of 2012 Norton winners compiled by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board click here.
When he’s not writing and editing for Midwest Wine Press, Danny is a television news journalist, radio anchor and history documentary maker. He shoots publicity videos for wineries and works part-time at Belvoir Winery in Liberty, Missouri. For more information visit Regional Wine Taster at www.regionalwinetaster.com
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Excellent reporting about the Norton. You may want to try a Norton wine from the Paradise Springs Winery in Fairfax, Virginia. You will be amazed…..Norton at its best
cheers my friends Ed
Thanks Edward…I believe you work at Paradise Springs Winery, which is not to say the Norton there isn’t “Norton at its best” !! But to be worthy of your compliment, Midwest Wine Press should politely reveal your association and understandable bias ; ) All the best Danny
I gave an elderly friend of mine from Baton Rouge a bottle of 1999 Stone Hill Norton. I asked him to give me honest opinion. If he didn’t care for it, it certainly wouldn’t hurt my feelings. He has about 3000 bottles in his cellar and his wine friends regularly share $1000 bottle French wines with him. He called me after one of their wine tastings and told me that he served the Norton to his friends. He said being an oenophile he was familiar with the the Norton history, but had never actually tried it.
He served the Norton from a decanter to his wine friends for a true unbiased opinion. He said they all thought the unknown deep red wine was one of the best ever served and everyone was shocked to find that it came from Missouri!
Thanks for sharing your Norton experience. It’s an amazing wine that few people know about. In terms of aging Norton, I have been told that 3-4 years is about as long as you want to go. There are not a lot of tannins in Norton so it’s not going to soften much after extensive cellaring.