The Norton grape

As someone who has visited many vineyards in Missouri*, I was quite familiar with the taste of the Norton grape this past weekend when my parents opened a bottle they had been given as a gift. They had never heard about the Norton, and were impressed with the taste. (This particular Norton came from Mount Pleasant Winery)

However, I’ve never been one to focus strongly on a grape’s history, or trying to define the taste beyond whether or not I like it. For example, I had no idea it was declared the “state grape” back in 2003.

Varietal Description

Norton | Cynthiana
Your history is crazy, even a little wild. You first surfaced in the state of Virginia as Mr. Norton, a man with a regal character. Proudly American, but respected in Europe where they flattered you as the “best of all nations”. Then we met you in Missouri, posing as a demure and elegant lady, impressing with subtle charm. The locals knew you as Miss Cynthiana, their ‘Cabernet of the Ozarks’. As it turns out you were a little mad, for Mr. Norton and Miss Cynthiana, you are one in the same! You’ve been diagnosed with a split personality affliction.

A more serious and indepth look at the history of the Norton grape

Sauce Magazine article on our official state grape.

Although the fruit has many fawning admirers, they cannot agree on what to call it. In the late 1800s, a grape discovered in Arkansas was given the name Cynthiana. It was sent to vintners in Hermann, who deemed it a separate species from Norton, which was already under cultivation at the time. Today, many people still swear that Norton and Cynthiana are different. In 1992, to settle the dispute, Bruce Reisch of Cornell University took samples of the two grapes from 10 local vineyards. DNA analysis revealed the study specimens to be genetically identical. Still, both names persist, a fact acknowledged by the Missouri state government in calling the grape “Norton/Cynthiana.”

darn scientists

*(I’ve visited between 15 and 20 of the wineries in that list)

0 thoughts on “The Norton grape

  1. Databob

    You like wine? Since WHEN?!?!?
    Yeah, my fav. is Norton. It’s usually more expensive for the generally same quality though, due to the processing time being longer. Or so I’ve been told.
    I say we conduct a taste test to find out…

  2. TNWT

    There are 218 Norton wineries today in 23 states. Finding that exceptional Norton wine is like kissing a lot of toads to find that prince(ss). After tasting now 104 different Norton wines from sixteen states, we have found a few (6?) exciting Nortons and a handful of other really good wine examples which vary annually due to production whims. Many people want instant wine gratification upon purchase, but here is where that does not work since most Norton wines need to be put away for several years, ~ something most people are not willing or able to do. To date, we’ve found only a few “drink now” Norton wines; as, Westphalia and Peaceful Bend in Missouri and Castle Gruen in Virginia. And wineries that hold back their wines four or five years also consequently charge you more for these wines (Stone Hill Cross J Norton as example). But not to discourage you in Norton wine purchases, you will enjoy even younger Norton wines if you let your bottles rest even for a few weeks after purchase (travel bottle shock) and make sure to let your Norton wine breathe for no less than 40 minutes before serving. Your first sip will smack you of malic acids (+ tannins), but quickly settle down with the second sip, etc. Depending on your travel location, do try the best Norton wines within the following states: White Oaks (AL); Mount Bethel (AR), Three Sister (GA); Century Farms (TN); Elk Creek (KY); Illinois Cellars (IL)., Castle Gruen, *Cooper, DuCard, Chrysalis $$(VA); Stone Mountain Cellars (PA), Heinrichshaus, Stone Hill’s Cross J, Montelle, Robller, Peaceful Bend and Westphalia (MO). Please do not compare this wine to California and European vinifera, it’s truly an American wine which reflects our American culture. Doug Frost, a Kansas City wine writer and master sommelier expressed Norton wines best as “powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid and capable of staining teeth or even wineglasses. [The wine is] probably something most drinkers have to learn to love, with its rough and rustic personality often evident.” Another concern for many is the cost of Norton wines. Realize that grape production can be less than one third per acre with Norton grapes as compared to other grape yields because of its small size and extremely seedy fruit. There are other factors involved also, but generally expect to pay $18-$25 per bottle. Most less expensive Norton wines reflect anticipated quality, but here we also have some fine exceptions; as, Horton ($12-$15 VA), St. James ($8-15 MO), Illinois Cellars ($7 IL). and White Oaks ($13 AL). Try to find Norton vineyards with older vines which combine well with more experienced Norton vintners. But here again, we have been pleasantly surprised with new Norton upstarts who make amazing blends to camouflage their young green Nortons. Do yourself a favor by enjoying Todd Kliman’s novel-like-Norton biography, The Wild Vine, with a Norton wine in hand.