Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

If I asked you about Tempranillo, then you likely could tell me it comes from Spain. Nebbiolo? From Italy. And Pinot Noir comes from the France’s Burgundy region, of course.

But if I asked “where does the Norton grape come from?,” then you would likely be stumped – unless you were a native Midwesterner or Southern Virginian, or a pretty serious wine person. In fact, Norton may be the most American of all grape varieties that are used to make wine.

I first came across a Norton wine during a trip to Missouri a few years ago. A St. Louis restaurant had a number of wines from the state on the list so, as the saying goes, “when in Rome …” The wines I tasted unfortunately didn’t share much in common with the great wines of Italy, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the deep, dark red wines made with Norton grapes that tasted, to me, a touch like Welch’s Grape Juice, but certainly not unpleasant.

Missouri has a long history of winemaking. In 1980, when the Federal government first began delineating winemaking regions and identifying them as American Viticutural Areas, or AVAs, the Augusta region was the first region to be so designated.

Back in the day, that is the days prior to Prohibition, Missouri was second to California in terms of wine production and much of that industry was built around the Norton grape. Missouri winters can see sub-zero mornings and the summers can be marked by triple-digit afternoons. It takes a hardy grape to survive in this climate and the dark blue, intense Norton fits the bill. Ironically, the Norton was an import from another part of America – Virginia.

In the 1820s Dr. D.N. Norton of Richmond, Va., was working on creating a hybrid grape that would be appropriate for the production of wine. His grape, which he named after himself, proved nearly immune to disease and impervious to bad weather. German settlers from Pennsylvania who were familiar with the grape’s properties took cuttings with them when they moved across the country and settled in Hermann, Mo., about 90 miles west of St. Louis. There they created a wine industry and in 1873, a Norton wine from the region won a gold medal at the Vienna World Exposition.

Today the Norton is the state grape of Missouri and there are four AVAs located in the state, hosting more than 80 wineries. That is nearly double the number that existed just a decade ago. Annual wine production is a little over 1 million gallons, much of it Norton, which ranked Missouri twelfth in total wine production in 2009 among the 50 states. For perspective, that’s nearly three times the size of Colorado’s wine industry.

One of the reasons for the renaissance in the Missouri wine industry is that the state has a well-organized and well-funded organization that does much of the science and marketing. The Missouri Wine and Grape program is supported by a 12-cent-per-gallon tax on all wine sold in the state. This cash goes a long way towards promoting Norton wines, so we can expect to see more of them on wine lists and store shelves in the future.

Missouri is not the only state that grows Norton. There is a patch or two in Louisiana, an indication of just how hardy the grape is, and the Texas Hill Country has seen some wineries making a move to plant what could be called an American Heritage Grape. Virginia, the grape’s home state, has embraced it and a number of wineries are planting acreage.

One of the most successful Virginia producers of Norton is a winery called Horton. I just loved writing that. Horton Vineyards is in Orange County, Va., not far from where Dr. Norton first created his grape.

Selling for around $15 a bottle, fans say it is a steal. If you come across a bottle, then please pick it up for me. The name alone is priceless.

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