The exact origins of the Norton grape are a topic of some speculation. That being said, the Norton was essentially a response to market demands for a viable American wine-producing varietal. Today it is grown more widely in Virginia than anywhere else in the United States. Norton is not necessarily the premier wine grape, but it is clearly a feature of the Virginia winemaking landscape and may be suited more than any other varietal to the Mid-Atlantic growing conditions.
Historically, Virginia has been a very challenging place to grow grapes. Thomas Jefferson tried and failed. The first couple centuries of Virginia history contain countless tales of viticultural woe. Anyone can grow grapes in California, but in Virginia climate presents obstacles that are not easy to overcome even with modern agricultural techniques. Late frost, rain during harvest, summer heat, hail and the potential for wet growing seasons all contributed to early failure. Traditional European varietals, or vinifera, proved difficult to cultivate in such conditions. Nevertheless, there was a huge demand for wine and importation was cost prohibitive, so beginning in the early colonial period, rewards were offered to successful vintners. As a result of these incentives, growers continued to experiment in search of more promising varietals. Native American grapes were resistant to the diseases that plagued vinifera in the damp conditions and held up well in the local climate. Grapes like the Concord, however, produced wines that were not very pleasing on the palate. They were described as "foxy," (whatever that means) and were better used in the production of jam. As a result, the viticultural community believed until recently that, if there was a future for Virginia wine production, hybrid grapes were the answer. So efforts were directed at developing a hybrid using the right combination of grapes.
There is some mystery surrounding the actual creation of the Norton varietal, but in the 1820s Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton, of Richmond, Virginia produced the hybrid that bares his name. It is believed that Dr. Norton was actively experimenting with grape cultivation, but the Norton may have been a mutation occurring outside of any controlled conditions. Mutation from seeds can easily occur, so there is some doubt surrounding the actual lineage of the grape. The male parent, however, is almost certainly the wild vine Vitis aestivalis, which was crossed with an unidentified vinifera. Unlike other American varietals, it didn't have the "foxy" flavors and produced a very drinkable wine.
Beginning in the 1830s, Norton was used widely for wine production in the East and Midwest. A Missouri Norton even won gold at the Vienna Exposition of 1873. If not for prohibition, when most grape vines were pulled up, Missouri might have become the center of American wine production. In the post-prohibition period, California's success with vinifera led to its domination of American viticulture, but the Norton was once again cultivated in the Midwest, where it became one of the dominant varietals and was even named the state grape in Missouri. An interesting side note is that the Norton does not do well in California. It is a varietal suited exclusively to the Eastern half of the United States.
Curiously, it was the early 1990s before Norton reappeared in Virginia, when Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards in Central Virginia, brought Norton back to the State. Horton's production of wine from Norton has had a huge national and international impact on perceptions of the grape. Today Norton can be found thoughout the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and northeastern Georgia. Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia, has 69 acres of of the grape, which is reported to be the largest planting in the United States and therefore the world. So Norton has returned to its state of origin with a vengeance and today the varietal is successfully used for wine produced throughout Virginia.
Burnley Vineyards recently hosted a vertical tasting of its Norton. Six different vintages, from 2006 through 2012 were part of the lineup along with a 2007 and 2008 Port-style Norton. In a good year, Norton can be complex with lots of black fruit on the nose and palate. The 2007 vintage, arguably one of the best years for Virginia wine, expressed these qualities. The 2008 and 2009 vintages were nearly as good and the barrel tasting from 2012 showed potential. Wines produced from a bad growing season can be full of tannin and not nearly as palatable. The 2006 season saw extreme drought and the stress on the vines brought out the worst of the grape. Conversely, 2011 was a very wet year, but those conditions had a similarly bad effect. Horton Vineyards is currently pouring a 2011, which is slightly less acidic than the Burnley Norton, but still fails to display the best features of the varietal.
Norton is frequently used in the making of dessert wines, typically in a Port style. Burnley is one of these, but Glass House Winery produces a chocolate-infused Port-style wine, that is excellent when served with chocolate. Desert Rose Ranch and Winery also produces a very good Port-style wine, ironically named "Starboard," that won silver in Indianapolis. Keswick Vineyards has just released its third vintage of a Norton ice-style wine. As you can see, the Norton varietal is definitely not a one-trick pony. The grape is capable of big, bold, complex wines or a variety of dessert wines.
Norton does, unfortunately, suffer a bit from public perception. It's a grape that people tend to love or hate. There's not much middle ground where Norton is concerned. Vinifera tend to have better name recognition, so it competes against more popular red-wine grapes like Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Nevertheless, since Dennis Horton brought it back to the state in the 1990s, it has certainly secured its spot in Virginia wine production. Unlike the more popular vinifera, Norton is far more resistant to disease and stands up to the climate much better than any other varietal. So the grape does present a certain degree of reliability and doesn't require as much pesticide as other varietals, which makes it less expensive to cultivate.
The Norton Grape may still play an even more significant role in Virginia viticulture. A parental cross between the Norton and Cabernet Sauvignon was recently introduced and patented by U.C. Davis. This hybrid, the Crimson Cabernet, is said to have the disease-resistant qualities of Norton and fruit similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. There is some speculation that this will be a game changer for winemakers in the Eastern United States, but that is still to be seen. Popular perception is often driven by name recognition and hybrids seldom receive the market attention they deserve. Having said that, Desert Rose will release their first vintage in October of this year. This will only be the second vintage bottled in the United States and the first east of Kansas. So we'll have to wait and see how the public responds.
Desert Rose Ranch and Winery
Ultimately, of course, the success of Norton is at the mercy of individual palates. In a good year, Norton shows well and the Norton dessert wines can be exceptional in any year. While taste certainly rules, Norton does have more antioxidants and antimicrobials than any other grape. So basically, it's good for you. If you need an excuse to drink wine, that's one reason to give it a try. A final reason to give it a taste is its historical significance. Viognier may be the official state grape, but Norton was the "original" Virginia grape.