Norton Virginia: Fascinating History and Taste

Pre-Civil War Grape Type Shines 

Earlier I discussed the Norton Virginia grape, a native American type discovered c. 1830 by Dr. Daniel Norton in Richmond, Virginia. It is of the Vitis aestivalis species, and of unconfirmed lineage. Some think it has some European heritage (Vitis vinifera) but it is considered of the wild American grape family.

Most American grapes, of the six or seven types native to the continent (labrusca, riparia, etc.), have the fox flavour. This is the wild grape taste, a funky, blackcurrant note that traditionally is eschewed for quality wine-making.

Some of the grape types or hybrids associated with the taste are Concord, Delaware, Catawba. These wines had local markets in North America for generations both before and after Prohibition, either for table grapes, sweet and dry wine or both.

With the introduction of European vinifera types to California where they were a marked success, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling (and now many other areas including Ontario), viticulture based on native grape varieties has slowed considerably.

For example, little of this type is grown in Ontario because the provincial retail liquor monopoly, Liquor Control Board of Ontario, only buys Vinifera wines from growers, who are incented in other ways not to grow native varieties.

While this structure to our modern wine system was felt drastically to improve wine quality here, it has resulted in viticulture based largely on European grape types and the few hybrids authorized by Ontario’s wine standards body, Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).

In the U.S. many wineries persist with native grapes especially in the East where climate often is unfavourable to cultivating vinifera or the most popular sorts. I recall drinking Delaware and Catawba wine in the Finger Lakes region of New York years ago, and I’m sure some is still made.

A lot was sweetened but not all and winemakers are constantly trying to come up with the magic formula that will produce a widely appealing flavour albeit it might disclose some fox flavour.

Fox flavour characterizes many of the American-grown hops popular since the 1970s. Beer drinkers readily accepted these tastes, the wild fruit taste that characterizes Concord, say, which has relegated its use to sacramental wine, grape juice, and jam.

Welch’s grape juice typifies the taste to those reading who know the brand. Grape jelly for toast has the same taste.

Enter Norton Virginia, sometimes known as Norton or Cynthiana. While a charter member of the native grape group, it lacks the fox taste. This was noted immediately on production of wine from the grape in early 1800s. Three states are known for its cultivation historically, Arkansas, Virginia, and Missouri.

The absence of fox taste made it a star in the eyes of Europeans and those in their thrall making authoritative determinations of wine quality. Norton grape wine won  a gold medal at the Vienna world exhibition in 1873 and was even grown in France.

It was thought to be a first class “claret” wine and set to be a major international variety comparable to Bordeaux red, fine Burgundy, and other noble reds. See some background in this excellent precis of its history from the Appellation America website. A search of “Norton Virginia” will disclose many other good short accounts.

But that world stage never came. There are a number of reasons: California with its lush European variety wines, in the market since the 1880s after pioneer growers brought European cuttings, started to overshadow eastern winemakers.

Also, the Norton grape is difficult to propagate which inhibited its spread to otherwise receptive vineyards. Further, it requires a receptive climate, especially a long growing season albeit it is strongly resistant to the cold weather period and the phylloxera pest. Modern viticulture and science probably could find ways around the limitations, as they have for vinifera in many regions.

Finally, WW I and especially Prohibition ended any chance of a world greeting for Norton. The 1930s was period of transition where growers back in business were deciding what to grow and how to sell it during the Depression, then WW II came. Norton Virginia fell by the wayside.

So the grape has remained on the fringes of the wine world but a dedicated group of winemakers, most in its three heartland states, persist with it including Horton Vineyards in Virginia where Dennis Horton has grown the grape since 1989. I tasted his wine last night in company of an English guest.

We all agreed it was flavourful and interesting. The guest thought berry-like, an accurate view IMO and I’d add spicy, with good acidity. It is somewhat like Zinfandel but less “hot” and with no jammy quality – a cooler climate Zin with some resemblance to the best Beaujolais as well, Morgon, say, and Fleurie.

The type is said to age well – Horton on the label suggests 7-10 years – but drinking it fairly new showed appealing qualities all the same.

While I hold nothing against the fox taste as such on the theory of the relativity of taste and using the beer analogy again, lacking the fox taste can do nothing to harm Norton’s future prospects. The grape performs differently too depending on local growing conditions and this variety of character would broaden its appeal.

Perhaps it can be grown successfully in parts of Ontario. I’d think the southwestern corner may be apt, which has a warmer climate than other parts of Ontario.

Based just on this one bottle, Norton deserves to be much more widely known. It may one day become America’s answer to the red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel (Zin of course is an American variety but its lineage is 100% European, effectively it is an import as the other three).

It may fulfill the destiny, finally, many forecast in the 1800s.


2 thoughts on “Norton Virginia: Fascinating History and Taste”

  1. We have several wineries that make red wine based on the Norton/Cynthiana grape. The two biggest are Wiederkehr and Post. Both are delicious. Both vineyards are located on the extreme southern slope of the Ozark mountains before they give way to the Arkansas River Valley creating a milder micro-climate than what you will fine higher up in the Ozarks.

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