Attempting to drink Norton in Virginia

Norton is not a hybrid. Maybe you knew that, but it’s easy to forget/not realize/assume that it is. Very understandable: Norton obviously isn’t among the top European vinifera varietals – and its name makes it an unlikely candidate for one of those little-known and newly-discovered vinifera esotericals – so that means it must be a hybrid, right? Well, wrong. Norton is a Vitis aestivalis or “summer grape” (aestivalis refers to summertime) and a totally different species from V. vinifera and V. labrusca. In the United States, we usually refer to European varietals as “viniferas, V. labrusca grapes like Concord and Catawba as “natives” for being indigenous to this continent, and intentional “man-made” crosses between European vinifera and American native varietals as “hybrids.” Vitis aestivalis, then, is none of the above.

Or at least that’s the best consensus at this point. Some folks seem to think that Norton might be a very old hybrid between a labrusca called (of all things) Bland and the vinifera Pinot Meunier. I’ve not read genetic data on the subject, but every paper in American Society of Enology and Viticulture as well as the several Norton-related papers indexed on PubMed agreed in identifying Norton as V. aestivalis. Like native labruscas, Vitis aestivalis is also native to eastern North America. state of Missouri markets Norton as “America’s True Grape.”

So, Norton is not a hybrid and, therefore, I was interested in tasting a few over my weekend at the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hybrids and I don’t get along well for one really quite simple reason: anthranilates. Methyl and ethyl anthranilates are the chemical compounds responsible for the distinctive “foxy” aroma that characterize wines made from hybrid grapes (or pure-bred V. labrusca.) V. aestivalis, however, isn’t known for having a high level of these compounds or the associated “foxy” flavors.

I learned today that Norton is associated with Missouri – Norton is Missouri’s state grape – but I had heard more about Virginia’s iterations of the varietal. Norton is popular in these areas in large part because of its strong mildew resistance, a real boon in often-humid climates. With 100°-ish temperatures and humidity over 50% all weekend, even I was beginning to mildew by the end of my three-day stay in Virginia.  

I somehow managed to miss the several Nortons at the Virginia-only tasting over and around the Friday-evening dinner at Monticello, but there were plenty Missouri versions at the post-prandial “The Other 46 Tasting” (referring to the states other than CA, WA, OR, and NY.) Scientific evidence aside, I’m now more willing to accept the son-of-Bland hypothesis. I wouldn’t exactly call these wines bland, but flavorful they were not. Keeping in-mind that this wasn’t an event designed for in-depth tasting, here are my very brief notes on three Missouri Nortons from that evening:

“Lots of burnt-out fruit up front, nothing to back it up, a bit sour. YUCK.”

“Skunky, smoky, and sweet. Double YUCK.”

“Richer, jammier, a little sweetness, but no tannins, short finish, flat mouthfeel, just not much going on.”

I don’t want to dismiss an entire varietal/region/style based on a handful of examples, so I’ll make an effort to try more Norton wines in the future. HOWEVER, reading a little more about the basic characteristics of the Norton grape makes it sound unlikely as a great winemaking grape. From a 2011 paper in BMC plant biology by a group of viticulturists in Missouri:

-          Norton retains high malic acid at time of ripening → high acidity for a red and, after malolactic fermentation, potentially lots of buttery flavors. I’m just not sure if butter complements the basic Norton flavor.

-          Norton retains high phenols at time of ripening → phenols are such a tremendously large and varied group of compounds that it’s hard to say more about the impact of “high phenols” on the finished wine without more information on the specific phenols involved.

-          The skin of Norton grapes has a higher anthocyanin content than that of Cabernet Sauvignon → deep pigmentation. Usually a good thing, but a bit misleading in this case because it doesn’t match up with intensity of flavor.


Interestingly, several of the articles I found that were theoretically in support of Norton angled heavily towards negative comments about Norton’s flavor profile (this profile at Appellation America is a good example.) Ergo, un-foxyness may be the best thing that can be said about Norton. Still, I’ll do my best to keep an open mind. If anyone has anything to contribute about growing V. aestivalis and/or making or drinking wine derived thereof, I’d welcome the education.