Last week we brought in a red and white blend from Morrisette of Virginia, prompting me to reflect upon the historic Norton wine making grape of that state. Thirty years ago Norton was promoted as the signature wine of Virginia. It seemed to be the counterpart to what Zinfandel is to California and to my tastes it seemed better than Zinfandel. Remembering the prominence of Norton in Virginia, I assumed it must be a big part of the Morrisette red blend.
Dr. Daniel Norton, a medical doctor by trade and botanist by avocation, either discovered or created his namesake grape in the early 19th century and sometime around 1830 the wine became commercially viable. By mid-century the Norton grape was a hit with domestic winemakers and soon thereafter, Europeans recognized its quality.
However, one of the inescapable wine industry truths is that you have to sell it, meaning this is a commercial industry and no matter how good your product may be, the public must respond to it. Thirty years or so ago, Paul Thomas of Washington State produced lovely dry white wines using fruit other than grapes but if you blinked you may have missed them, they came and went so fast. In my research I have learned that Norton wines have not sold well compared to the traditional international varieties which have largely replaced it on store shelves. Now it is predominantly a blender in Virginia where it adds color, fruit, and spice to most any blend.
The good news for Norton though is that it grows well in a lot of other states including Georgia. In the store right now we have the Tiger Mountain Cynthiana which is genetically identical to Norton but because it develops differently in the vineyard, it may be a clone or mutation of Norton.
Norton vines are very adaptable throughout the American south. They tolerate low temperatures (to -20) but require a long growing season so the south and southern midwest are where they fair best. Norton carries the moniker, "Cabernet of the Ozarks", as the premier grape of Missouri, a state that is recognized by the experts for its superior production. Likewise in neighboring Arkansas the grape thrives but once again it is known as Cynthiana there.