Monday, January 3, 2011

NORTON WINE - AMERICA'S GRAPE


Norton

In the land of grapes, Norton is not exactly a household name.  Not in the American wine mecca of California for sure, and not even in places like Missouri and Virginia, where the Norton vine has its roots.

Those roots go back to 18th century America.  Paul Roberts of Deep Creek Cellars in Friendsville, Maryland has much to say about Norton - or Cynthiana, as it is also known - and he is reprinted at length on the website for Virginia's Chrysalis Vineyards.  He also has a book on the subject: From This Hill, My Hand, Cynthiana's Wine.

The grape known scientifically as vitis aestivalis is believed to have been produced by a Dr D.N. Norton of Virginia, who - probably by accident - crossed two other still unknown grape varieties.  Many grape varieties native to North America have aromas and flavors too sweet and "grapey" from which to make good dry wine.  Norton does not generally exhibit those properties, and makes some very fine wines that are legendary to folks in the midwest and eastern U.S.

In 1873, a Missouri Norton wine was proclaimed "the best red wine of all nations" at a competition in Vienna.  Roberts says, "Zinfandel is often described as America's first and most original gift to the world of wine.  Actually, it's Norton."

Todd Kliman’s book, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine, deals with the origin of the Norton Grape, its heyday and its status as an outsider in the wine industry.

The book was reviewed on Palate Press, and in the interview with Kliman following the article the author talks about the Norton grape.
“I still don’t think Norton will ever be a dominant wine," he says.  "That’s just not its place. America’s palate, since Norton’s heyday, has changed too much.  But it could be much more than it is.

"You either love Norton or hate Norton," Kliman continues.  "It is a wine of extremes. Someone new to the grape and the wine must understand that.  If you are used to the wines that currently represent what America is, according to the West Coast definition, Norton is going to be very different from that.  Norton is not the kind of wine that you drink while curled up with a book by the fire.

"Norton should be kept in context with the sort of expression of American culture that it could have represented.  I think of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain and even jazz music, and how they have come to define American culture.  Norton was born of the same soil, and yet it is almost unheard of.  It should be understood as a similar expression of that American experience."

Still today, wineries in states from Virginia to Georgia to Texas to Missouri produce Norton wines that are well worth seeking out and trying.  However, Norton wines are not so easy to find in much of the western part of the country.  I was fortunate enough to receive some samples of various Norton wines from Missouri, Virginia and Georgia.  In the coming few days - beginning Thursday - my impressions and tasting notes for those wines will be published here on the Now And Zin Wine Blog.   I hope you’ll look for them.  And for some Norton wine.