The Norton grape is championed in print
Several years ago, a dinner guest from Washington, D.C., brought a red wine from Virginia made with a grape called Norton.
It was likely the only bottle of Norton in British Columbia at the time. Virginia wines never make it into this market or, for that matter, into many other markets. The Norton varietal is almost unknown to Canadian wine consumers.
That is unfortunate. This is one of the few indigenous grapes yielding a good table wine. I remember our wine to be plumy and rich, vaguely comparable to Merlot or Carmenère. I would buy it again if I ever saw a bottle.
The varietal’s almost total lack of profile has been repaired by one of 2010’s more interesting wine books: The Wild Vine: A forgotten grape and the untold story of American wine by Todd Kliman. Some 280 pages long, it is published by Clarkson Potter of New York and lists for $29.95 in Canada. I spotted a few copies recently at Indigo and it certainly is available through Indigo’s website.
The grape was created by Daniel Norton. A doctor by profession, and not a very happy doctor, he acquired a Virginia farm as the dowry when he married. He spent much of the rest of his relatively short life (47 years) dabbling in horticulture. “He planted a wide variety of grapes, native and foreign alike, and an array of other fruits and vegetables …,” Kliman writes. “One of his consuming passions involved the crossbreeding of varieties to produce a hardy, disease-resistant grape that would, in addition, make a supple drinkable wine.”
The odds are very long against many successful wine grapes emerging from such breeding programs. How many wineries still produce wines from the De Chaunac or Rougeon grape, to name two developed a century ago by French plant breeders.
About 1821, one of Norton’s crosses produced the variety later named for him. His paperwork was less than adequate; Kliman speculates on what was crossed with what. Nothing is conclusive except that the new grape could handle the Virginia climate which had destroyed the European varieties; and the wine he eventually made was palatable, unlike the wines made from the native labrusca grapes. He was able to get the variety listed in a famous plant catalogue in 1822. By time he died in 1842, others were taking up the grape.
The early champions included German settlers at Hermann, Missouri. A colony had been established there; incentives were given for wine growing and Norton was one of the varieties planted. “By 1870 Missouri led the nation in wine production,” Kliman writes. And Norton wine made by a Missouri winery won a gold medal in a Vienna competition in 1873. Five years later, a Norton won another gold in Paris.
Kliman says that the golden age for Norton was 1870 to 1890. Norton wine was lauded not just for its taste but also for its presumed healthfulness as “the best medicinal wine in America.”
Why did Norton stop being the most famous red in America? Firstly, the California wine industry emerged, overwhelming the market with good wines that were cheaper than those from Missouri. Some Norton was planted in California but the variety did not thrive there.
Secondly, Prohibition virtually wiped out wine growing in Missouri (California’s growers survived by shipping grapes for home winemaking). Ottmar Stark, the largest vintner in Hermann, ordered his vineyards pulled put. “A full decade before the stock market crash of 1929, Hermann was plunged into the Great Depression,” Kliman wrotes.
Some Norton vines survived in what Kliman terms the vineyard of a bootlegger. In 1965 Jim Held, a legitimate vintner obtained cuttings and started bringing the vine and Missouri winemaking back. Missouri has never regained the prominence it once had and the wineries now make a lot of sweet wine from Concord grapes. But they also make commendable Norton (among other varieties). Sometimes, the varietal name is Cynthiana; it is the same grape.
Prohibition pullouts seem to have eradicated Norton entirely from Virginia, its birthplace. In 1988, an individual named Dennis Horton decided to start a winery in Virginia with, among other vines, Norton cuttings he obtained from Held in Missouri. Horton’s first vintage was released in 1992.
Kliman’s book is structured around another vintner who clearly makes stunning Norton and has a passion for the wine that won over Kilman, who initially was sceptical about Norton.
The book has also won me over, even if it is frustrating not to have been able to open a bottle while reading this book.