The norton is one of the great success stories in the American regional wine business, a native American grape, probably a naturally-occurring hybrid that was first identified in Virginia in the mid-19th century. Nortons made in Virginia and Missouri are well-known and respected around the world -- big, dry red wines with bright berry fruit and big tannins that can age for a decade.
So why haven’t you heard about norton before?
“It’s because too many winemakers and winery owners go ‘Oh, ick, gooey, it’s a hybrid,’ ” says Dennis Horton of Virginia’s Horton Vineyards, which has been making norton since 1989, selling as much as 3,000 cases a year. “They’re more concerned abut the image of their winery than they are about making good wine.”
In addition, since it’s a hybrid, it’s not as easy to make norton as it is cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Plus, when it’s made poorly, it can be really bad – a nasty smelling wine that tastes dirty and doesn’t have any of the fruit that a well-made norton shows.
But when it’s good, it’s very good. The Wine Curmudgeon regularly does Missouri norton in a blind tasting, and no one has guessed it correctly yet. Big time wine types usually peg it for Australian or California, and are more annoyed than happy when they find out the wine is from Missouri.
Norton is cropping up elsewhere, including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma. I have bottles from Horton, Missouri’s St. James, and Oklahoma’s Stone Bluff. (Norton is also grown in Arkansas, where it’s called cynthiana, but it’s made in an entirely different style. There, it’s usually sweeter, which produces a less complex and less interesting wine.)
These are some of the highlights of the norton universe:
• Virginia: Horton’s wine ($12) is produced in a distinctly Virginia style and perfect for barbecue. Chrysalis Vineyards takes a more sophisticated, French-style approach with its Locksley Reserve ($35), which pairs with prime rib. Chrysalis’ Jennifer McCloud is one of the world’s great norton advocates – even bigger than me, which is saying something.
• Missouri: St. James and Stone Hill make wines more in the style of Australian shirazes, though the fruit is livelier and there is little of that Aussie inkiness. Stone Hill’s norton ($19) is a classic example of the varietal, made to drink now or to age just like a fine French or California wine. St. James’ reserve norton ($15) is a little less big than the Stone Hill, which doesn’t detract from its quality.
• Texas: So far, Stone House has had the most success with norton in the state. Every time I taste the Claros ($22), it gets better. Drink it with grilled steak.