This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Wednesday, Jul. 16, 2008 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20080716.php.
A peek at Norton
It's time for another of our occasional peeks at the unusual but likable American grape that's interchangeably called Norton or Cynthiana. An intriguing variety that's produced mostly by small-farm wineries in the Midwestern and Southern U.S., it makes a clean, fresh wine that - happily - lacks the overwhelming "grape jelly" flavor that puts most serious wine enthusiasts off American native varieties.
As a matter of fact, many of the Nortons I've sampled boast intriguing mixed red and black fruit flavors that remind me more than a little of an American immigrant grape, Zinfandel.
Summing up some of our earlier reports, Norton neither a French-American hybrid nor a cross of varieties. It's a full-blooded American native grape, but it's no kin to the vitis labrusca such as Concord and similar grape-jelly varieties. It's an entirely different species, vitis aestivalis ("summer grape"), discovered in the 1830s in Virginia.
Originally called "Virginia Seedling," the small blue-black grape was enthusiastically embraced by 19th century Eastern American wine makers, who were delighted with its winter-hardiness and the absence of that overwhelming "grape jelly" aromas associated with Concord and its kin.
Today it's enjoying a small renaissance from Arkansas (where it's usually called Cynthiana) and Missouri (where it's most often called Norton), east to Virginia and North Carolina and west to Nebraska and Iowa.
A very few Nortons come from producers large enough to supply a limited market outside their home territory, but by and large - as I wrote in my column Locavino a few weeks ago, wine enthusiasts who want to add Norton or Cynthiana to their "life list" may have to hit the Eastern wine roads on a winery day trip.
For today's tasting I feature a well-made if rather tutti-frutti-style Norton from Chrisman Mill, a respected Kentucky winery in the town of Nicholasville, with a tasting room in the larger Central Kentucky city of Lexington. You'll find my notes below.
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Chrisman Hill Vineyards 2006 Kentucky Norton ($17.99)
Very deep ruby color with a reddish-violet edge. Fresh, almost jammy fruit, plums and blackberries, brown spice and an intriguing touch of something akin to old-time sarsaparilla. (That's root beer to you young'uns.) A big, juicy flavor, ripe black fruit and plenty of mouth-watering acidity and perhaps just a touch of sweetness. Definitely on the fruity side, but well balanced and good with food, with just a touch of pleasant bitterness in the finish. A decent interpretation of the unusual American Norton grape, made in a fruity "crowd-pleasing" style. (July 14, 2008)
FOOD MATCH: It worked very well with thick, pan-seared natural pork chops, and would pass muster with just about any red meat or grilled poultry.
VALUE: This price point near $20 strikes me as a bit spendy for an offbeat variety from a winery in a state not known for its wine, but it's a well-made red, and you'll pay more than a double sawbuck for plenty of those.
WHEN TO DRINK: Norton fanciers argue that it will benefit from careful cellaring like other full-bodied, well-structured red wines; still, the high-fruit character of this model suggests drinking it up reasonably soon.
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