Norton Grapes: An American Original

nortonVirginia Claret?

The year was 1980. It was payday and I stopped at my favorite wine shop on the way home from work. The proprietor, a friend of mine, came running to greet me, holding a bottle of wine he had won at an auction. The label was festooned with medals announcing that it had won major accolades in prestigious competitions held in European capitals. The winery was “Monticello,” the name of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home. The name of the wine was Virginia Claret, and the date on the bottle was 1887. What had my friend discovered: a world-class, award-winning Virginia wine from the 19th Century? Was that possible?

The dominant component in that antique wine was a grape with the singularly unsexy name Norton. A true American grape, possibly hybridized with Vitis vinifera, but genetically and ampelographically classified as a cultivar of the native V. aestivalis. And it can make world-class wine!

The Norton Story

Many folks have tried to unravel the story of the Norton grape over the years. Rebecca and Clifford Ambers, both of Sweetbriar College (in Amherst, Virginia) have uncovered some of Dr. Daniel Norton’s papers and their interpretation of his life, his gardens, and his namesake grape makes fascinating reading. (See Ambers, Rebecca K. R., Ph.D. and Ambers, Clifford P., Ph.D., “Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton and the Origin of the Norton Grape,” American Wine Society Journal, Vol. 36 (3): 77–87.)

Dr. Norton was a physician whose small suburban farm was located in what is now the Carver neighborhood of Richmond: my old neighborhood! Among his hobbies was the effort to develop strains of wine grapes suitable for producing world-class wine in Virginia. Sometime between 1818 and 1828, Dr. Norton discovered a seedling growing in his experimental vineyard and soon recognized its extraordinary qualities. Over the remainder of the 19th Century, Norton’s grape variety grew in stature as a wine producer and the Norton was established throughout Virginia, Missouri and Arkansas by the 1840s. According to author (and Norton grower) Paul L. Roberts,

“In 1873, a Norton made just south of St. Louis was declared the ‘best red wine of all nations’ at a worldwide competition in Vienna. The following year, a French commission studying American wines at [the French academic enological center] Montpelier gave Missouri’s Norton wines the same high marks. Many of the nation’s finest hotels and restaurants stocked Missouri and Virginia vintages . . . President U. S. Grant is known to have kept a righteous supply in his White House cellars.” (See Paul L. Roberts, “Norton, America’s True Grape . . . Whence and Whither?,” http://www.-thewineman.com/nortongrape.htm)

Norton or Cynthiana?

Scientists say that genetics shows that Norton and Cynthiana — another American red grape — are the same species. However, some argue that Cynthiana ripens earlier than Norton. Possibly, Cynthiana is a distinct clone. Call it what you will, but this author is a Virginian and — in my story — Dr. Norton gets to have his name on his own grape!

What’s the Wine Like, Anyhow?

All this history and botany is entertaining, but we’re here to make wine! The question is, what can we expect from Norton grapes? Anyone who regularly makes red wines from grapes grown in Eastern North America knows that it can be difficult to get the “phenolic” ripeness and the color of a big, rich, full-bodied wine. With Norton, it’s a snap. Even when not fully ripened, Norton tends to produce a deeply-colored red wine with mouth-filling texture.

Many folks like to compare Norton with Zinfandel. Like Zin, Norton has a spicy, brambly character, but it is more deeply colored, and it often emphasizes dark fruit, coffee and chocolate-like flavors. The texture is medium-to-full-bodied and it can range from somewhat rough to silky smooth.

Most experts agree that Norton wines age very well and improve over several years in the bottle. How, then, do we account for the sentiments of one Virginia wine wonk (whose anonymity I will mercifully protect) who wrote, “People either love Norton wine, or they hate it. I’m a hater.” Compare this sentiment with those of Jennifer McCloud, proprietor of Virginia’s Chrysalis Vineyards:

“We’ve undertaken a serious commitment to restoring the native American grape, Norton, to its position of prominence as a source of world class wines . . . The Norton is dark in color with big fruity flavors, firm acidity, and a sweet taste that does not deliver typical ‘foxy’ flavors and fragrances.”

Even quite ripe Norton can exhibit high total acidity levels, which makes it unusual for a red grape. What’s more, it can also weigh in at a high pH, even without being overly ripe. Attempts to control pH can lead to even greater additions of acid. The malic to tartaric acid ratio is unusually high in Norton, and there are concentrations of some flavor compounds that are not typical of “normal” (i.e., V. vinifera) grapes. The result is a big in-your-face hit of firm acidity, along with the deep, darkly rich fruitiness we usually associate with low-acid wines, like Aussie Shiraz or Amador Zinfandel. To some this “Norton twang,” as I like to call it, is just a bit too odd.

Like most grapes, Norton doesn’t make the same wine everywhere it is grown. Because it is a native grape, Norton is very resistant to many common vine diseases, including the infamous Pearce’s Disease, which keeps most Old World vines out of the South. Norton can flourish as far south as the Mississippi delta, but there it produces a pale shadow of itself. According to Joe O’Neal, of Bayou LaCroix Vineyard in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, “Color in the Norton here is almost muddy. The flavor is just flat as well.”

One of the joys of growing Norton grapes is that they are very hardy. They can even tolerate occasional temperatures as low as -20 °F (-29 °C). This might make you think that Norton would be found throughout the Northeast, or even the Northern Plains, but that isn’t the case. To develop fully, the Norton vines require a reasonably long growing season. Many growers feel that the best qualities only develop in Norton with plenty of “hang time,” even after optimal sugar levels have been obtained. For that reason, the Middle Atlantic States are generally the northern extent of production. Nowhere is Norton more at home, however, than in the neighboring states of Missouri, where Norton is the state grape and Arkansas, where it is usually called Cynthiana. I personally count some Norton wines produced from old Missouri vines as one of the “best red wine of all nations.”

Mike Oglesby, who grows Norton at his Meadow Creek Vineyards in Fox, Arkansas, notes the sensitivity of Norton to different terroirs:

“Cynthiana from my vineyard has a distinctive brambleberry fruit-forward flavor that I find pleasing but is not to everyone’s taste . . . I find my Cynthiana wines to be more Burgundy-like but have had St. James Norton, from Missouri, with deep chocolate and coffee overtones.”

Most folks who make wine from the Norton are fans of malolactic fermentation, which helps reduce the high malic acid content. Mike Oglesby recommends using Lalvin’s 71B-1122 yeast, which is also my top choice for this grape, because this strain digests a portion of malic acid during primary fermentation. Another option for moderating the acid profile of this grape is to use carbonic maceration, which also devours malic acid.

While many of the wineries that produce Norton bottle their products principally as varietal wines, one of Norton’s real strengths is as a blender. Mike Oglesby notes:

“A two-thirds Chambourcin to one-third Cynthiana blend makes a complex, full-bodied wine with good balance.”

I like to blend Norton with Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cab adds additional length and depth to the structure, which augments, and is in turn augmented by, the lush fruit and dark flavor tones of the Norton. I also find that additions of enological tannins can round out the mid-palate with these wines. Jim Ward, of Eno River Vineyards, in Durham, North Carolina, blends his Cynthiana with Malbec and Petit Verdot. Just a little bit of Norton can provide color, body, fruit, and spice to a thinner, paler red wine.

Can I Grow My Own?

If you live in the Middle Atlantic or the Midwest, you might want to consider growing your own Norton grapes. Compared to V. vinifera varieties, Norton is relatively easy to grow. The vine is not without its quirks, however. For instance, even though Norton is a native grape — and can be grown on its own roots rather than on commercial disease-resistant rootstock — it is almost impossible to root from cuttings. Instead, you need to propagate the vine by “layering.” That entails making a purposeful wound in a vine and covering the wound with soil or some other growing medium. After a time, roots will sprout, and this rooted section can then be planted.

Norton will require a spray regime, but it won’t be as demanding as those of Old World vines. Whatever you do, however, don’t allow any sulfur spray to come anywhere near your Norton vines. Paul Honea, of Chestnut Ridge Vineyard in central Virginia, didn’t understand this unusual feature of Norton vines. He planted a few rows alongside his Cabernet Sauvignon, and shortly after normal sulfur spraying of the Cab, he noticed the tragic results in his Norton vines. The big-leaved, vigorous young vines suddenly looked “as though someone had walked down the rows with a flame-thrower, burning all the leaves.”

Another drawback to growing Norton is its incredible vigor. In fertile soil, the vines produce lots of greenery. The Virginia Extension Service recommends planting Norton in poor, infertile soil, just to help control vigor. Plan on lots of pruning and canopy management if you want top quality fruit. Jim Ward notes also that the dense canopy and smallish clusters make harvesting Norton just a bit more work than for some other varieties. Despite that caveat, Jim says that growing Norton means you have to “spray less, fret less and don’t bother cluster thinning.”

Not everyone recommends ignoring the cluster thinning, however. S.C. Wehner, a hobbyist grower and winemaker, is very pleased with the Norton he grows in Midland, Texas:

“They produce profusely — to the point this year I will do my best to thin. They need to be thinned back during the growing season . . . to improve on individual bunch yield, but without any attention they yield 80 lbs. (36 kg) per vine!”

So Let’s Make Some Norton!

If you live in an area where Norton is grown, try to arrange to get some this coming harvest. If you have any influence over when the grapes get picked, try to shoot for “phenolic” ripeness, as indicated by woody rachises, brown pips, full fruity flavors, and softening skins and pulp. Properly ripened Norton will weigh in at 23–24 °Brix, but you can certainly make tasty wine with less sugar. I buy 15 lbs. (6.8 kg) of grapes for each gallon of finished wine I hope to make.

Crush your grapes and test the pH of the must. If it is 3.7 or higher, plan on adding tartaric acid until pH is below 3.6. Now, if TA is higher than 7 g/L as tartaric, you can consider lowering acidity slightly through amelioration (adding sugar water to retain the Brix reading while lowering TA). With Norton, this may sometimes be acceptable practice, but it’s not one I recommend. Even if TA were as high as 10 or 11 g/L, I would not try to ameliorate acidity at this point. Using pH as your guideline, add sufficient potassium metabisulfite to achieve a maximum of 20 ppm SO2.

Should you cold soak? In order to increase extract and, especially color, many winemakers like to reduce the must temperature to about 40–50 °F (4.4–10 °C), and allow it to soak, with or without color-extracting pectic enzymes. There is no shortage of tannins and colorants in Norton, so with grapes grown in their optimal zone, I see no benefit to this. The potential rise in pH that sometimes comes with cold soaking would be undesirable.

Pitch a yeast starter. If TA is high or if fresh fruit emphasis is desired, use Lalvin 71B. If sugar is as high as 24 °Brix, then consider using a different yeast, because 71B might leave more residual sugar than you want in the finished wine. I like D-254, a Rhone Valley isolate, for its contributions to rich mouthfeel and velvety texture. Aim for a warm fermentation with lots of punching down or pumping over.

Norton grapes are chock full of seeds, and the seeds are full of bitter tannins. I have never had a Norton wine that was overly astringent or bitter; however, many commercial wineries believe that delestage should be used in making Norton wines in order to produce desirable velvety tannins and easy drinkability in the finished wine. (See Daniel Pambianchi’s “Do the Delestage,” June–July 2003 WineMaker.)

When primary fermentation ceases, pitch a culture of malolactic bacteria, along with some MLF bug food. Allow the wine to rest undisturbed, in a warm area. When malolactic fermentation is complete, rack the wine off the primary lees.

Norton responds very well to oak — barrel aging or tank aging with oak adjuncts. In fact, Norton can stand up to quite a bit of oak. I like to use enough to enhance the spicy qualities of the wine, but not so much as to eclipse the sweet fruit and rich cocoa flavors. However, many folks like to bottle Norton with no oak. This is a place where you can experiment and customize your own Norton wine.

The large load of non-dissolved solids that is typical with Norton dictates a fairly lengthy regimen of racking and waiting in order to clarify and stabilize the wine. It is often quite drinkable just a few weeks after fermentation is over, but early bottling will lead to a load of pigment sedimentation in your bottles. You could rush the process by fining or filtering, if you prefer, but I think patience is well rewarded. This wine really improves with proper maturing. At this point, the choice is up to you: blend or bottle as a varietal. Your decision may depend on how extensively your wine exhibits that “Norton twang,” whether you like it or would rather subdue it in favor of more traditional flavors.

If you find you’re hooked on Norton, the adventure is just beginning. This grape begs to be experimented with, by blending, by making rosé, by trying out carbonic maceration and by using different levels and types of oak aging. If you have, or are contemplating, a backyard vineyard, a few Norton vines might make a big contribution to your home winery. Norton is truly America’s wine grape. Try it out and see what you’ve been missing.