A Forgotten American Grape: Norton

by Eve Resnick on June 7, 2010

in General

There are grapes whose story is very sad. Norton is one of them. It is one of those grapes that history forgot and that some bold wine makers are trying to put back on the map. The story is told masterfully by Todd Kliman in his book: The Wild Grape. A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine (Clarkson Potter, NY, 2010).

Daniel Norton was a  physician who died very young but not without leaving as a legacy to America a strong and resilient grape bearing his name, the Norton. It is a native grape like Catawba, Scuppernong or Niagara.  The wines made from Norton won awards in Europe in 1873 during the Vienna Universal Exhibition. A wine critic Vizettelly wrote: “The finest American red wines were those yielded by the vine sknown as Norton’s Virginia, […]. The former produces a well-blended, full-bodied, deep-colored, aromatic, and somewhat astringent wine, only needing finesse to equal a first-rate Burgundy […]” (p. 122).  Like some other grapes, Norton lost ground to other grapes, mostly coming from Europe. At the end of the 20th Century, some wine makers, led by the Chrysalis vineyards, re-discovered the potential of the Norton grape.

I let you discover the story told almost like an historical novel by Kliman. What interested me most in the book is Kliman’s thoughts on the “domination” of the vitis vinifera mostly coming from Europe over the native grapes. European wines were the benchmark of  viticulture and wine making for centuries. European wine growers and makers brought their knowledge to America when they emigrated.  Sometimes they applied it to growing local vines, sometimes to growing what they knew to grow – Cabernet, Pinot Noir or Shiraz.

My question now is: is there room in the American wine industry for a wine brand based on a native American grape? Chrysalis Winery took up the challenge.  As stated on their web site, “Here at Chrysalis, we’ve undertaken a serious commitment to restoring the native American grape, Norton, to its position of prominence as a source of world class wines.  Cloaked in myth and mystery for decades, Norton thrives in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions, and produces a robust red wine with big fruit flavors that ages beautifully over the years.  One hundred and twenty five years ago, Norton wines were deemed the “best red wine of all nations” at a worldwide competition in Vienna. Today excellent Norton wines are again being produced in many states east of the Rockies.”

Unfortunately the rewards are not coming easily to those strong willed wine makers. An “Heritage Tasting” held in Richmond did not attract the attention of the wine world outside the producing area.  Articles in various national magazines failed to increase awareness of the grape. What’s wrong?  When “googling” Norton grape, very few information come up: a Wikipedia article, the Missouri Wine Organization web site and a few articles on the grape.

It seems there is no real strategy behind the revival of the grape. Let’s hope that Kliman’s book will allow Chrysalis and the other wineries growing Norton to get more coverage. But only a strong and clear strategy that will allow the Norton grape to get back on the map. The revival of a forgotten grape is no trivial matter, but not an impossible task. Some regions succeeded in creating awareness on brands with a very difficult name, like the Müller-Thurgau in the 80’s on the West Coast of the US or  the Cahors Malbec in France whose fame was “stolen” by Argentina.  Let’s hope for the best…!

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