Wine Talk

Snooth User: D9sus4

Norton - a brief history of an American wine

Posted by D9sus4, Sep 16, 2009.

I was asked by a fellow snoother to write a bit about Norton wines after I had expressed some opinions regarding same in another forum thread. So in an effort to comply and, for what it's worth, share my humble knowledge of the subject, I present the following:

I moved to Missouri in 1994 after having lived the prior ten years in Sonoma County, CA. My taste buds were pretty well adapted to the noble wine grapes grown in California's perfect climate. I frequented the great wineries of Napa and Sonoma and my first impression of Missouri wines was not very favorable. Then I learned that the true vinifera grapes I was used to didn't survive in the harsh Midwest weather. However, hybrids of some of the grapes such as Chardonel (a Chardonnay hybrid) and Vidal Blanc (a French hybrid of Ugni Blanc and Seibel) did do well and produced some excellent wines. But, the one that really surprised me was a wine I didn't know called Norton (sometimes also called Cynthiana).

First, I should begin by stating that Norton is a grape that is uniquely American in origin which is principally used to produce a dry red wine. It was discovered and introduced to the world by Dr. Daniel Norton (1794-1842) of Virginia. It was first mentioned in William Prince's book "A Treatise on the Vine", published in 1830. It is presumed to be a hybrid of the Bland grape (a now extinct Vitis aestivalis hybrid of uncertain origin) and Miller's Burgundy (Pinot Meunier, a Vitis vinifera). Whatever it is, it happened by chance, and it was a lucky break for future American vintners.

A few years after Norton's discovery, a group of German immigrants founded a town along the Missouri River called Hermann, Missouri. There they planted a considerable amount of Norton grapes which were used to produce some very fine wines. At the 1873 Vienna World Exposition a Norton wine from Hermann, MO won a gold medal and was pronounced one of the finest wines in the world. But, a few decades later came Prohibition and, for a while, the world forgot about Norton, Missouri and a great American wine.

Sometime in the mid 1960's, a few adventurous people purchased, and began the long process of rebuilding some of the fine old wineries of Missouri and once again producing that almost forgotten wine, Norton. A decade later a second wave of adventurers began opening new wineries in the region. On June 20, 1980 the first federally approved AVA (American Viticultural Area) was given to Augusta, MO. That was eight months before Napa Valley, CA received it's AVA. The wine industry in Missouri had officially returned. Enough with the history lessons, so how does it taste?

OK, now it's opinion time. I find Norton to be a lot like Pinot Noir. Not in taste, but in the fact that it's hard to find a really good one cheap. Norton can have a bit of that foxy taste that you usually associate with Vitis labrusca wines. It is a hybrid of a Vitis aestivalis (a native wild grape) after all. What I've found is that the vintners who put in the extra effort to take these grapes to the highest level they can, produce some truly wonderful Norton wines. But, they do charge extra. You can expect to pay $20-50.00 for a good bottle of Norton. This may not sound like much compared with a great Cabernet Sauv. or Pinot Noir, but if you consider the spectacular Zinfandel and Shiraz(Syrah) wines available for under $20.00...well...

Let's take barrels for instance. In California today they primarily use French oak barrels for their better wines, and American oak for only part of the process. In Missouri, most of the wineries use only American oak to age their Norton. I feel this makes the wine too oakey and so tannic, that you really can't drink it in less than ten years. It also doesn't help to disguise the foxy nose of the wine the way that a good French oak barrel could. A handful of Missouri wineries, like Stone Hill, have experimented with French as well as Hungarian oak barrels for Norton wine in recent years and have produced some amazingly good and complex wines.

As I write this, I am drinking a 1997 Cynthiana (Norton) wine from Heinrichshaus Vineyards. He used primarily Hungarian and older American oak barrels to make this wine. It is still vibrant and has not yet peaked, but the Norton taste is not dominated by the foxiness of the grape, nor the harsh tannins of new American oak.

Here's a short list of wineries whose Norton wines I would highly recommend:
Stone Hill Winery http://www.stonehillwinery.com/
St.James Winery http://www.stjameswinery.com/
Heinrichshaus http://www.heinrichshaus.com/
Adam Puchta http://www.adampuchtawine.com/
Crown Valley http://www.crownvalleywinery.com/
Sugar Creek http://www.sugarcreekwines.com/
Blumenhof Winery http://www.blumenhof.com/

There are a lot of other wineries I could list, but all of the ones I have named produce consistently good Norton wines as well as other varietals. This should be enough information to get you off to a good start. Cheers!





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Replies

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 16, 2009.

Thanks, D9sus4, or should I say Dionysus? *Extremely* informative post, and the effort you spent to put it down on virtual paper is appreciated.

I'm curious about the cooperage. Does everyone use 100% new barrels, or do they reuse and lower the oakblast that ensues from sole use of new barrels? American oak doesn't have to be all that harsh, and some versions are no stronger than, say, Limousin.

Also, if you are able to include any tasting notes at whatever point you're inclined to do so, I'm sure they'd be interesting, too.

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Reply by rhill2990, Sep 16, 2009.

Thank you for this post. Very informative.

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Reply by Jimmy Cocktail, Sep 16, 2009.

Here in Virginia, a lot of wineries attempt to make a Norton wine however few succeed in bringing out the best of this grape. There is one that currently stands out which is the 2008 Norton from Barrel Oak Winery (http://www.barrleoak.com). It recently took a double gold for best red wine in an international competition (not sure of which one I'll try and get that info the next time I am there).

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 16, 2009.

dmcker, An in-depth discussion of the properties of various types of oak barrels would require a new thread. So I will answer your question by stating that most of the wineries here are not using the best quality of American oak barrels that are available today, such as those being used in California, Oregon and Washington. http://oregonbarrelworks.com/Oregon... Since oak has a major influence on the finished wine, I contend that if more Missouri wineries would use the better oak barrels they would produce finer Norton wines. Indeed wineries such as Stone Hill and Adam Puchta, who use at least some French or better American oak to make their Nortons, seem to prove this true. Unfortunately, there is a plentiful cheap supply of barrels being made in Missouri as we are also the largest supplier of whiskey barrels in the USA. So...

JimmyCocktail, have you ever tried the Norton at Horton Vineyards there in Virginia? http://www.hvwine.com/index.html I've only read about them, but have not tried their wines.

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Reply by Jimmy Cocktail, Sep 16, 2009.

It has been several years since I've been to the Horton Winery so I can't speak to their current vintages. However, in the past I had though it was just ho-hum. Something that was made just because the grape is native to VA. It is quite possible that has changed since then.

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 16, 2009.

Jimmy, can't seem to get into the website you post for barreloak, on three tries. Will try again later, but have you tried that URL recently?

D9sus4, of course there's a whole range of 'oak' out there, and anyone who is the least bit serious about the wine they're making pays close attention to this important factor in the equation. If you're suggesting you want to start another thread on American oak, I would e a very interested reader/participant... ;-)

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Reply by gregt, Sep 16, 2009.

Are you sure that it happened by chance? May be but I think it was one of several crosses between US and European vines. The US grapes didn't produce great wine but the European, and particularly the French grapes, didn't do so well in the much richer US soil with the warmer and more humid climate and phylloxera, which wasn't yet understood. So there was an intensive effort to cross-breed grapes and came up with a few good varieties.

I also think Missouri was once the largest producer of American wine. In part that is because during much of the 1800s, at least until the rail lines were built, the Mississipi was the major north/west transportation mechanism in the heart of the country and towns like St. Louis were of far greater importance in the overall country's nineteenth century economy than they are today. And no slight meant by that to any current residents.

At least according to the records, the US was producing wine on par with many in Europe by the later 1800s. Then the US nuked its entire wine industry with Prohibition. The hybrids were also planted in France where some of them did quite well. But today they aren't allowed as the wine world is very conservative and frightened of anything new.

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Reply by Jimmy Cocktail, Sep 16, 2009.

dmcker, Sorry, just a horribly simple tyo in the URL above. That's why giving me time to proof my work just makes me look at my error and say "Yup, that's good!" Try this one.
http://www.barreloak.com/

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Reply by dmcker, Sep 16, 2009.

Sorry, Jimmy, I didn't even bother to read the URL, or would've undoubtedly tried it with an 'e'. Just clicked. That's what comes of too much hurrying through too much Internet, too many messages, too many sites, and too little time to reflect...

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 17, 2009.

dmcker, I agree that anyone who is serious about the wine they make should be paying close attention to the oak they use, but alas, this is not the case. There is a considerable difference in the cost of French vs cheap American oak barrels and also high-quality American oak barrels. Economics is always a factor in their decision. There's a scene in the movie "Bottleshock" which alludes to this problem.

GregT, Yes, by chance. Dr.Norton himself said that he discovered the grapevine in his vineyard plot and had to guess at its origin. He did not deliberately engineer it. Also, genetic research to this day has not produced more difinitive answers.

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Reply by schellbe, Sep 19, 2009.

GregT

I think it was cold, not heat, that limited the success of vinifera in most of the US east of the rockies. I was told by one grower in MO that riesling was hard to grow because of the extreme changes in weather that would hit MO (read Siberain express). But Arkansas has had some success with Chardonnay. I think they have better luck with vinifera on the east coast, with their more maritime influence, but except for the Finger Lakes I am not familiar with winemaking there.

Is Quercus alba (eastern white oak) inherently inferior to the Oregon white oak? There are certainly plentiful stands of the former in MO.

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 19, 2009.

GregT, It's a combination of both actually. Too hot and humid in the summer, too cold in the winter. I have read that there has been some success growing vinifera in different regions of the country other than the west coast, but what little wine I've tried has not been particularly good.

Note to those who don't know this already, most of the vinifera wines produced in the USA, outside of the those from the west coast, are made from juice (usually what's been left over from the first press) that has been trucked in from the west coast.

There is a comparison chart between Quercus alba and Quercus garryana in the following link: http://oregonbarrelworks.com/Oregon... And yes, Q.alba is not as good for wine as Q.garryana (Oregon oak) in my opinion.

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Reply by schellbe, Sep 19, 2009.

D9sus4

Thanks for the info. on the oaks.

Anomolously, the Finger Lakes of NY has the problem of being too cold in the summer. Winters are actually warmer than eastern WA. But they are producing good Riesling and Gewurz, with some luck with Cab. Franc and Pinot Noir. Ontario (Canada) has good luck with both reds and whites, and I believe most of the these are home grown (not from BC).

I checked my notes, and we tried some good wines at the Baltimore Bend winery in Waverly, MO, west of Columbia, including a Norton and a Cabernet Franc, which I believe is home grown. I'll post when I get to my home computer.

Crown Valley Winery south of St. Louis is a good example of the truck in the grapes mentality. The wines are good, but the vinifera are trucked in from CA. If one is visiting MO wineries, what's the point?

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 20, 2009.

schelbe, Thanks for the info on Baltimore Bend winery. Haven't tried their wines yet, but will be sure to do so in the near future.

Crown Valley Winery is a perfect example of what I was talking about vis-a-vis trucked in grapes. They actually produce some wonderful estate grown Norton and other wines, but they feel compelled to also produce and sell (emphasis on sell) vinifera wines made from grapes Not grown there or anywhere near Missouri. It's all about marketing, which they do very well. Unfortunately, there is an endless supply of ignorant buyers in the Midwest who go to these regional wineries looking for Merlot et al, and some of these wineries are more interested in profiteering than education.

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Reply by schellbe, Sep 20, 2009.

Baltimore Bend Vineyard

My wife and I visited this winery, east of KC about 50 miles. I see that my notes are not very complete, probably because we were cycling, were carrying full panniers, and were tired. But here goes:

06 Cynthiana Reserve $22 (Cynthina is another name for Norton.) Nice wine which I purchased. Notes of spice and ripe olive. Their literature says it is aged in French oak 24 months.

05 Cynthiana $17 Smooth flavors, softer than 06 reserve. Probably more ready.

05 Chambourcin $15 Another common red hybrid grown in MO. Lighter bodied than Cynthiana.

06 Cabernet Franc $17. Very light bodied, soft and smooth, with tobacco in nose. I believe this is a MO wine. A quality CF, perhaps similar to that from Loire, or New York State. Definitely without the ripe fruit of a CF from California.

I also tasted the 05 Chardonel (white hybrid), which seemed soft, with nice oak and a little spice, and one sweet wine, "Cirrus", which seemed simple. They also have a variety of sweet wines made from American or hybrid varieties,and a couple of fruit wines (apple, peach). I did not try these.

There is no harshness or unripe bell pepper flavor in any of these wines. They seem well made, one of the better MO producers I've sampled.

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Reply by Jimmy Cocktail, Sep 22, 2009.

Yes, after returning there this weekend I found that the 2008 Barrel Oak Norton took Double Gold and Red Wine of the Year at the 2009 Indianapolis International Wine Competition.

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Reply by gregt, Sep 24, 2009.

RE: the oak. It's not only the species, it's the way the wood is treated prior to being turned into barrels. Just like they recommend air drying the Oregon oak, they could air dry other American oak. In both cases, the wood is far different than had it been kiln-dried. Ridge Vineyards has dried their own oak for years for the Monte Bello and they've made barrels in the same way the French do. What's interesting is tasting the same wine that's been put into different types of oak barrels. If the barrels are made in the same way, the comparison is very illuminating.

I wonder if there's any way to get some cynthiana out in NYC. I've never tasted it.

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Reply by D9sus4, Sep 25, 2009.

GregT, I couldn't agree more, the making of quality wine barrels is an art that is practiced by a relatively small number of people in the USA. And too few wineries here in Missouri pay much attention to it. However, at one of the wineries which does pay attention (Stone Hill Winery), I once tried three Norton wines from the same vintage drawn from three different types of oak barrels; American(Missouri), French(I don't remember which cooperage), and an alternate stave barrel(1/2 American, 1/2 French). Those of us who were tasting unanimously agreed that the wine from the French oak barrel had a more refined and complex character and tasted better. The alternate stave was second and the American, while still very good, lacked the sophistication of the French oak aged wine.

That said, American oak wine barrels have improved a lot in recent years and there are more quality wine barrels being made in the US now than a decade ago. Many premium wineries in the US are again using domestic wine barrels although mostly for Cabernet Sauv. and Zinfandels. French still being preferred for white wines.

The wineries in Missouri do ship to New York, so you could always order some online.

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Reply by AdamJefferson, Oct 19, 2009.

Tell me a little about the oak used in making barrels, the grade of the staves, and the finishing process. Living in Missouri, if we've got anything its oak. Of all the reasons for producing a wine that is below potential, poor barrels and barrel material shouldn't be among them. What gives?

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Reply by D9sus4, Oct 20, 2009.

AdamJefferson, That's a very complex subject which is currently being explained by Snooth's own Gregory Dal Piaz. Check ot the following links: http://www.snooth.com/articles/comm... , http://www.snooth.com/articles/comm...

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