Most of us on the West Coast have lived in blissful ignorance of the Norton grape. However, it has a fascinating history and is an American original. But is it good? Well, maybe…
Throughout the early colonial period, settlers imported vines from Europe in order to establish an American wine industry. They had, after all, European tastes and the wines made from wild, indigenous American vines were not to their liking. However, these imports failed because they lacked resistance to various diseases that did not exist in Europe. So some 18th Century American wine lovers took their experimentation very seriously attempting to crossbreed European and American vines in an attempt to produce something that could survive and also taste good.
Dr. Daniel Norton, a Virginian, was among this group of pioneers who had dedicated his life to finding a viable American wine. Despite many failed attempts in 1820 he found 1 vine that survived although its parentage was unknown and even today is a matter of some dispute. The speculation is that it was a cross between a European vitis vinifera variety and a local variety, perhaps vitis aestivalis, but no one seems to be sure about this. At any rate, plantings of the Norton grape spread throughout the eastern states, but especially in a German settlement in Hermann Missouri. By 1870, because of the popularity of the Norton grape, Missouri had become the biggest wine producing state in the nation and its wines gained an international reputation winning competitions in Vienna and Paris.
Unfortunatey, prohibition stopped the grape in its tracks. Most of the vines were burned by federal agents or pulled out by the farmers. But bootleggers managed to salvage and hide plots of Norton that would be rediscovered in the 1970’s and it now enjoys legions of fans throughout the East and Midwest.
Enough history! What does it taste like?
I tasted several during a brief stop in Missouri. I chose the one under review because it has some age on it and is widely respected among the locals.
To this California-trained palate, Norton is full of paradox. It is intensely grapey, in-your-face bold fruit, tinged with coffee notes, supported by a layer of loamy earth, and rounded off with vanilla aromas from the oak. With age and aeration, subtle nut aromas, cinnamon and smoke develop as well. So there is plenty of complexity on the nose. But what is distinctive about Norton is the high acidity that is striking right from the beginning. Most big, red wines are fruit forward and the acidity becomes more apparent as it evolves on the palate. But Norton doesn’t wait to slap you in the face. The tangy fruit assault is immediate making the mouthfeel seem hard at first showing licorice and bitter herb notes but resolving nicely in a long, satisfying finish with tannins that are supporting but not grippy. Typically tart wines tend to be thin. This is tart but round and full–a paradoxical wine.
This is not a wine for the feint of heart and if you’re looking for finesse look elsewhere. It is linear and rustic but powerful and complex. It’s comparable to a rustic Syrah but with high acidity and low alcohol.
I have limited experience tasting this grape and so this is very much a first impression. I certainly want to explore it in more depth and the winemakers here who are striving to elevate the status of Norton are right to do so. There is potential but I can’t say I have my arms around it yet. I would be unfair at this point to give it a score.
I’m drinking it while listening to this track from Rage Against the Machine. It seems appropriately in your face.