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A cluster of ripe Norton grapes.The American "native son" of wine grape varieties, Norton is mostly absent the "foxy" aroma and taste present in many indigenous North American grapes, but which consumers more familiar with the flavor of vinifera varieties find somewhat alien. Botanically, Norton is Vitis aestivalis, the "summer grape", also known as Cynthiana1, Red River, and Virginia Seedling; the grape may well have originated near the Virginia site where the variety was discovered and cultivated, c. 1823-28.

According to Nurseryman William Prince who published the first description of the grape in 1830, along with an offer to sell plants, Dr Daniel Norborne Norton, a dedicated horticulturist from Richmond, Virginia, was the first to cultivate it and bring it to Prince's attention.2

In the middle of the 19th century, as the American wine industry was first beginning to achieve some success and regard, a respected English wine critic declared Norton from Hermann, Missouri, to be one America's finest red wines.3 Although that praise has yet to secure international agreement, it is entirely possible all that might require is some consumer awareness.

One particular viticultural advantage for Norton is that, as an indigenous variety, it has developed resistance to indigenous weather conditions, pests and maladies, so its vines are little affected by extreme seasonal temperatures, by common Midwest and Eastern problems with mildew and rot, or even by the worldwide grapevine nemesis phylloxera. The vines are very vigorous and, although requiring a long growing season, Norton ripens its fruit very evenly.

One major disadvantage to this variety is difficulty of propagation. Norton does not reproduce well through the normal method of rooting cuttings or scions. Instead, the method that works to make more Norton vines is layering (marcottage in French). Layering involves burying a section of a shoot still attached to the parent plant, but allowing the tip to protrude from the soil. After it develops a separate root system, the offspring is detached and dug up for replanting (or left attached if used to fill-in an empty space in a vine row).

Like cabernet sauvignon, Norton berries have thick skins, which are also very dark and high in acidity. The wine is often indistinguishable in aroma or flavor from wines made from vinifera grapes, but obstinate bias against non-vinifera keeps many wine drinkers away.

*Typical Norton Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques, so this list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive, merely suggestive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: raspberry, plum, apricot, prune



Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood

Spice: bittersweet chocolate

Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar

Herbal: coffee

Bottle Age:

*(Too few reliable tasting notes were available to get truly accurate typical descriptors for Norton wines.)

by Jim LaMar

1. Cynthiana appears in references and on labels of this grape primarily in Arkansas, where an additional claim to its origin is staked, although nearly 2½ decades later than the Virginia discovery. At the time, although the grapes shared very similar characteristics, Cynthiana was thought to be an entirely distinct variety from Norton; subsequent DNA mapping has proven them identical. RETURN

2. Because of the circumstances and proximity of several grape species grown in Dr. Norton's gardens, and deviations in its ampelographic description and growth characteristics, some experts believe Norton is actually a cross (accidental or purposeful) of a hybrid of a now-extinct V. vinifera Bland and an unnamed V. labrusca, pollinated by a wild unnamed V. aestivalis. RETURN

3. The 1869 United States Census figures show American wine production to be 42% from Missouri, 27% California, and 13% New York. In 1899, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, wage competition made Missouri farming untenable and wine production dropped to just 3% of the national total. RETURN

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Rebecca and Clifford Ambers, "Dr Daniel Norborne Norton and the Origin of the Norton Grape," American Wine Society Journal, v. 36, no. 3, (Fall 2004)

3. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996

4. Norton / Cynthiana - Appellation America

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Page created September 26, 2011; last updated July 1, 2015
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