It’s doesn’t matter that Norton isn’t grown in the world’s fanciest regions or that its heritage is more than a little suspect. To Andrew Meggitt, who has been making wine with the red grape for 20-some years, Norton is about as American as grapes get: “That’s what sells it,” says Meggitt, the excursive winemaker at Missouri’s St. James Winery, “that it is the quintessential American grape. It’s unique. It’s different. If wine drinkers are looking for a variety that looks and tastes like nothing else, then that’s Norton.”
Norton is neither vinifera nor a Franco-American or modern hybrid. Rather, it is its own species, aestivalis. As near as anyone can tell, says Meggitt, Norton was an accident, a cross in the wild that was first discovered on the East Coast in the 19th century and ended up in vineyards almost by mistake. Further confusing the issue: The grape is sometimes called Cynthiana. Norton was world famous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it won numerous awards (not coincidentally when phylloxera devastated Bordeaux). It mostly disappeared during Prohibition and didn’t start to return until the 1970s.
Norton’s sweet spot is the geographical band from central Illinois to the Texas Hill Country in one direction, and the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean in the other. It’s grown in a variety of states in that area but shows up most often in Virginia and Missouri. Those climates are not bitterly cold, but colder than vinifera likes, and the grape shrugs off the region’s heat and humidity. “It’s relatively bulletproof,” says Meggitt. “Even climate change doesn’t seem to have affected it much.”
The knock against hybrids is their so-called “foxy” aroma. (Consider foxy a down-market version of brett.) Modern winemaking and agricultural practices have minimized foxiness, says Meggitt, and 21st century Norton is made in a variety of styles. It’s winemaker’s choice—some blend it with vinifera; some use a more traditional approach, with minimal blending and oak aging; and some even make a lighter style for everyday drinking, aged briefly in steel tanks. Regardless, it’s a dark, full, rich wine (think dark berry fruit, cloves and coffee) that—surprisingly—isn’t especially tannic. In this, it’s not as gigantic as a 15% abv Zinfandel, but it is bigger than a red Bordeaux. Plus, there’s a bracing acidity that helps it age. Two decades isn’t uncommon, says Meggitt, who comments it “can age like Botox.” And if it still has a touch of barnyard, that’s one of the things that makes it so uniquely American.
Grape: Thick-skinned red grape
Crossing Of: Unknown
Where Grown: Middle latitudes of U.S., predominantly Virginia and Missouri
Wine Styles: Dry, single-variety or blends
Aromas/Flavors: Dark berry fruit, cloves, coffee
Food Pairing: Braised short ribs.
Fun Fact: In 1883, the American Cyclopedia, a Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, called Norton the “best medicinal wine of America.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: June 27, 2023