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Columbia Missourian

Missouri's state grape grows in stature and popularity

By Ilene Davis
November 25, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
On Saturday, Oct. 24, Les Bourgeois winemaker Jacob Holman tastes the Norton grape wine to make sure that the process is going along smoothly in the back of Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport.

COLUMBIA — Missouri's Norton grape is starting to get a little respect.

At the 2009 Pacific Rim International in California, Stone Hill Winery won a gold medal for its Norton.

MU estabishes an experimental winery

MU has recently established an experimental winery to test grape varieties and growing practices in the state.

Keith Striegler, director of the Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology, said winery will "allow us to do experiments on wine making."

Equally important is the ability to now do viticulture experiments "from the field to the final product," he said.

There will be opportunities for “sensory analysis,”  where wine tasters will evaluate how the experimental practices affected the final product.

To be able to determine the impact of any practice done at a vineyard is very important, Striegler said.

Until a “teaching winery” is built, the experimental winery will also be used to teach students interested in viticulture.

The winery did its first “crush” this fall, producing its first batch of experimental wine.

Striegler said the winery will conduct experiments on the Norton grape next year.

“We should be very proud of our Nortons,” he said.

At the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., people who are accustomed to drinking Cabernets and Merlots always line up to taste the Norton wines, he said.  They’re very impressed and very satisfied with what they taste.

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Stone Hill also won the Governor's Cup at the Missouri Wine Competition this year for its  2007 Cross J Vineyard Norton.

Last year, the 2006 Norton from Les Bourgeois Vineyards won a gold medal at both the Taster Guild International Wine Judging and the Missouri Wine Competition.

Jacob Holman, a winemaker at Les Bourgeois for 10 years, attributed the growing popularity to higher quality Nortons from Missouri wineries.

Last year, increased consumer demand caused Holman to limit the amount of time he usually left the wine in barrels and bottles to get the wine on the shelves.

"We're producing more and more every year," he said.

The Norton/Cynthiana grape (Vitis aestivalis) is the oldest American grape still grown. The blue-black grapes produce a dry, medium-bodied wine with a deep red color.

Rachel Mills, marketing director at Les Bourgeois in Rocheport, said Norton is “the cornerstone of the Missouri wine industry."

The state's 92 wineries produced about 888,000 gallons of wine last year, according to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.

"It's very, very popular now," said Paul Roberts of Deep Creek Cellars in Maryland about the Norton varietal. "It has to be the most broadly planted wine grape in the country because it's grown as far west as Arizona, in the Midwest, the East and the South."

A Missouri native, Roberts grew up in Poplar Bluff, graduated from MU and worked as a reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune for five years.

During three of those years he volunteered at local wineries on weekends during the fall harvest season. This prompted an interest in wine and different varietals. While living and working in publishing in Pittsburgh, he founded Deep Creek Cellars with his wife in 1997, then built a house and moved there in 2000.

In 1999, he wrote a book called "From This Hill, My Hand, Cynthiana's Wine." In it, he explained why Norton rises above other native North American grapes that are often considered sub-par by the much of the wine trade.

He attributed that assessment to a chemical flavor and aroma called "foxyness," a cloying, bubble-gum smell and taste that can diminish the wine's prestige.

"This characteristic usually mars dry table wines," he wrote. "For some reason Norton wines have none of the foxyness.”

Roberts and his wife grow their own grapes, but their location is too cool to ripen Norton, so they buy the varietal from Virginia, about two hours south. Beginning next year, his Norton grapes will come from a grower farther east in Maryland.

The Norton varietal is grown in at least 28 states across the United States, he said, but not in the "big three" wine states of California, Oregon and Washington.

The vines are mostly planted in Midwest and East Coast states where they can survive the humid summer weather and tolerate thin soil conditions.

"The rocky soil and humid climate in Missouri is something the Norton does very well with," Mills said.

This year, the Austrian glassware company Riedel worked with the Missouri Wine and Grape Board to recognize the wine by developing an exclusive glass to drink it.

"Reidel recognized the Norton varietal as a distinctive grape and wanted to design a specific glass showing off the wine as evidence that it has arrived," said Danene Beedle, marketing director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.

"It gives Missouri greater exposure and recognition of producing quality wines," she said. "Norton is a distinct varietal, and people who are wine enthusiasts like interesting wines."

A study released in the fall of 2004 by the American Wine Society Journal reported that the Norton grape got its start around 1823 on a farm owned by Daniel Norborne Norton near Richmond, Va.

The grape made its way to Missouri by way of German immigrants who settled in Hermann. 

Before Prohibition, Missouri ranked second in American wine production. Winemakers headed west after the amendment was ratified in 1919 and took the few vines they could salvage with them.

The vines were planted in California, ultimately producing grapes that earned international recognition.  But no Norton is grown in that state.

The difference is the climate, Beedle said. California's temperatures are not as broad as Missouri's.

"It gives us a regional differentiation," she said.

Next fall, the Norton Wine Festival will be held again in St. Louis to showcase the state's distinctive grape.

“Distinctive plus good equals success,” Roberts said. “That’s what Norton has going for it.”