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.

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15 thoughts on “Attempting to drink Norton in Virginia

  1. “A study done at Florida A&M has narrowed down the parentage. Parker, Bordollo, and Colova published a paper in Acta Horticulturae in 2009 that states, based on DNA analysis, that V. aestivalis, V. labrusca, and V. vinifera are all involved in the parentage of Norton. The vinifera cultivar is ‘Chasselas’. The researchers also discovered that PD resistance is derived from V. aestivalis. They also found that Norton and Cynthiana are genetically identical, ergo, they are the same cultivar.” ~ Dr. Eric Staphne, OK. State, Dec 1, 2010

    There are now 244 Norton wineries in 23 states producing Norton wines. Virginia having 35 of these vineyards. Cooper Vineyards in Louisa, VA produces a fine Norton year in and year out. All Nortons need to age five or more years and open opening needs to breathe extensively before enjoying. For more on the development of the Norton grape, read Todd Kliman’s The Wild Vine. A documentary that reads as if it were a novel.

    • Thanks for the informative comment. I was fairly sure that someone must have published the sort of work you describe from Parker’s group, but Acta Horticulturae isn’t a journal I would have thought to check (and it doesn’t pop up in my usual search engines.) I find your suggestion that Nortons need significant bottle age a bit ironic, given that most folk these days don’t hold on to wine and that I’ve gotten the impression that Norton is aimed at — err, can I say rather less well-educated consumers who are especially unlikely to lay bottles down for five years. I’ll have to look for some descriptions of old Nortons to get some idea of how their flavors develop (since I’m unlikely to find an aged Norton for sale and I don’t want to wait long enough to age one myself to answer the question.) Frankly, given the quality of the Nortons I’ve tried thus far, I’m disinclined to think that they’re worth that much trouble when I could be drinking other things, but I owe it to the grape to try it once.

      • Concider Norton an Age Worthy Wine:

        http://palatepress.com/2011/06/wine/considering-norton-an-age-worthy-wine/

        There are very few Norton wines that could be called “drink now” wines. Westphalia’s sulfite free Norton Reserve from MO and Mary Michelle’s Illinois Cellars ($8 value wine) could be considered exceptions. We are just now opening examples of 2007 Crane Creek ‘Hellbender’ Norton & 2005 Three Sisters’ Cynthiana (GA), Stone Hill 2005-2008 Nortons (MO), 2009 Stone House ‘Caret’ (TX), 2008-09 Cooper Norton Reserve, etc.

  2. This blog id an excellent example of the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. Your blog entry is mostly opinion coupled with a subjective judgement (despite your stated insistence upon keeping an open mind) based on very limited experience. Your research seems to amount to a cursory online search. Fortunately, someone who is better informed than you replied with the only really useful information presented. Professional wine writers take great pains to only print positive reviews. If you want to make a living in this industry don’t bite the hand from which you expect to feed. There are many people with a lot of experience with Norton that you could have contacted for more information before you went to the keyboard and denigrated their efforts. Fortunately, I doubt many people will read this, or that anyone in the industry will take this blog entry very seriously. Unfortunately, some perspective Norton consumers might do. If you want any assistance writing a more objective and better researched entry on Norton I’d be happy to give you some contacts to help accomplish that. I can name a dozen Virginia wineries that make Nortons much better than the wines you describe. If you are in the Napa area I will even taste some Nortons with you, if you are interested. Sincerely, Mark

    • Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree with several of your points. Yes, this was a quick post compiled from a bit of searching plus a bit of personal experience. I wasn’t trying to write a scientific treatise on Norton, and I was honestly hoping that someone(s) with more information would add that information via comment. I’ve been accused many times of self-editing myself to death. It seems that this time, in my effort not to do so, I offended you instead.
      Professional wine writers do not take great pains to print only positive reviews. This simply doesn’t match with my experience. Because I don’t like to offend specific individuals, I didn’t label my tasting notes with names of the specific wines. I will not say only nice things about everyone in the effort to make them like me. Doing so automatically ruins any credibility I might ever have, not to mention my own self-respect.
      I certainly could have contacted other better-educated folks to learn more about Norton, but I wasn’t trying to write about other people’s opinions on the grape. I was making a brief comment on my experience. I’ll certainly try other Norton wines in the future — like I try hybrid wines whenever they’re available, and sometimes find one that I like — but I think that there may just be something that doesn’t appeal to me about the grape. No need to take it personally; that’s just me. And, as you said, if no one reads this post, you as a Norton-supporter, have nothing to worry about my damaging anyone’s impressions of the grape.

  3. Sorry you weren’t able to try any of the Virginia Nortons. As a winemaker with experience in CA (10 years) and OR (2 years) and now in Virginia I will say that Norton is certainly different than vinifera-based wines. However, it does make very nice wines. There are several excellent versions in Virginia, please try it again!

    Todd Kliman’s book is an excellent read.

  4. Come on now. What would you say to a friend who said “wow, I tried three Chardonnays from one table at an event. Screw that, I’m done with chard.”

    Re: Norton as a wine for mopes, I think you’re looking at where Norton has been versus where it’s headed. It’s true that it was grown as a grape that was rugged, and you got what you got. It was probably something of a country bumpkin winery product, and fell out of favor as viticultural advances allowed vinifera to work. Those winemakers who have truly embraced it, however, are teasing out the complexity and nuance, taming the tartness and “grapeyness” that you find with Norton.

    As for bottle aging… Nebbiolo will change your religion if you get it aged, not young, and you’re probably on board with that. Having tried an ’03 Virginia Norton earlier this year, I have to say that age works some magic. It’s not hard to buy one bottle and put it away, labeled with “do not open till 2016.”

    Did you have the chance to try Chrysalis’ Locksely Reserve at the Monticello tasting? It’s a Norton-dominant blend that’s pretty awesome.

    Definitely check out Kliman’s book. It’s an easy, fun read with gobs of information.

    • Thanks for the extra info, Guy. To the hypothetical Chardonnay-hating person, I’d probably say the same thing that I said regarding myself and Norton, i.e. “Gee, maybe there’s something you don’t like about Chardonnay, but you should keep trying them to test that hypothesis.”
      I do hope that winemakers continue to move forward with Norton. Heck, the more places that can support a wine industry and the more styles out there, the better for all of us. However, the barrier to laying a bottle of Norton down for five years isn’t the time frame; it’s that there are a gazillion other wines out there on which I’d spend my itsy bitsy grad student income first. If and when that changes, I’ll keep your suggestion in mind.
      As for Kliman’s book, it had a few other plot elements that turned me off the whole story when I first tried to read it. I s’pose I really should try to push through for the sake of the informative parts but, as per Norton itself, that’s a tall order when there are so many other things on my to-read list. Ah, well. Such are my weaknesses.

      • Yeah, after I commented I got to thinking about the grad school thing, and I know that if I had told my wife to buy a bottle and lay it down for five years when she was a grad student, she probably would have replied with “right, I’ll have Jeeves get on that after he finishes waxing the burled walnut paneling in the Gulfstream.” So thank you for a more measured response!

        I’ve found that Norton really is a bit of a love it or hate it grape, and it’s exceedingly rare to find someone in the middle. I’m not sure that the Nortons on display at the Other 46 tasting were the ideal ambassadors of the grape, so maybe picking where you fall is premature. Your other commenter, TNWT, is a bit of a Norton fanatic and would be a good source of info on what’s good.

        The jury’s still out on whether or not we’re going to WBC12, but if we do we’ll try to get our hands on what we consider a good representative of the grape and bring it along.

      • Right on the money, or, rather, the lack thereof. I do hope you make it out to Portland next year, since I’ll guess that you don’t get a whole lot of Willamette pinot noir out your way (the object of my own fanaticism.) I’d enjoy trying a Norton selected by someone who knows what they’re doing. It nearly always helps me to try something totally different at the end of a long day of tasting (i.e. Norton after the aforementioned Pinots); otherwise, as much as I enjoyed, say, the VA Viogniers, there comes a point when you can’t appreciate much distinction.

  5. p.s. – having read through more of your blog posts, holy crap I *LOVE* your blog! The science approach you bring is pretty awesome. Great, one for blog for my RSS feed…

    • Thanks! I love trying to explain technical things with a little lighter tone but without too much dumbing down, and it’s encouraging to think that I might succeed once in a while. If you ever have any ideas for new topics you’d like to see me cover, let me know anytime.

  6. To somewhat echo TNWT’s first post, the Vitis International Variety Catalog (www.vivc.de), my goto place for grape variety information, partially reflects the cited study. It lists Norton (Cynthiana) as a hybrid of Aestivalis and Labrusca, but it doesn’t include the Vinifera connection. I’m not sure why. Do a search by cultivar for Cynthiana and then click on Cynthiana under the Cultivar name heading to see the details.

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