The Norton grape makes complex, luscious dry red wines, deep and intense dessert wines and a little of everything else in between. It’s a Missouri favorite and was even named the state’s official grape, but it has a complicated and somewhat contentious past, particularly regarding its name and origin.
Norton, named for Dr. Norton of Virginia, has also been called Norton’s Virginia Seedling, Virginia Seedling, and Cynthiana. The Cynthiana vs Norton debate tends to be the most heated. Cynthiana, believed to be discovered in the 1830s in Arkansas was thought to be a different variety for many years. However, genetic testing shows the two are indistinguishable, despite different ripening times and reported subtle differences in flavor. Both of which could be attributed to the area in which they’re grown, also known as terroir.
The Norton grape variety is believed to have been developed in the Virginia gardens of its namesake, Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton. The first mention of the grape comes from a prominent nursery of the time in 1822. However, there was a claim brought forward in 1861 that a Dr. F.W. Lemosy discovered the vine growing in wild on his property and gave a cutting of it to Dr. Norton in 1835. Being that there were two recorded mentions of Norton’s Virginia Seedling before 1835, this claim seems unlikely, but has caused some confusion as to the true origin of the grape.
What we know for sure is that Norton has found a willing and accepting home here in Missouri, and we are grateful for its hardiness and ability to make high-quality wines.
1818-1822 – Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton, an avid horticulturist working with many grape varieties and experimenting with crossing different breeds, developed the grape that would become his namesake in Richmond, Virginia. The exact parentage is still unknown. Norton is classified as vitis aestivalis (native American), but most likely the variety has a grandparent belonging to the vitis vinifera (European) family.
1822 – Norton’s Virginia Seedling is first listed commercially in a catalog by William Prince Jr. for his family’s nursery, the Linnaean Botanic Garden and Nurseries of Long Island.
1830 – Prince describes in detail and praises the Norton grape in A Treatise on the Vine.
1840s – Norton makes its way to Hermann, Missouri.
1848 – The first vintage of Missouri Norton is bottled.
1861 – A man named F.W. Lemosy comes forward with a claim his father discovered the Norton grape 1835 and gave a cutting of the vine to Dr. Norton. Seeing as it had already been commercially available for several years prior to 1835, this claim doesn’t appear to have merit, but still casts some doubt on the true origin of the grape.
Mid-1860s – A devastating blight attacks the vineyards of France. Scientists in France and America worked to uncover what was destroying the vines at their roots. It was a pest called Phylloxera.
1870-1890 – The golden age of Norton.
1870s – Cuttings of American grape vines, including Norton, which are resistant to Phylloxera are sent to France to be grafted to their vines.
1873 – The first of many to come, a Norton wine from Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri wins a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Vienna.
1874 – A study commissioned by the French Academy of Sciences lauds Norton as producing “wines of the finest quality”.
1883 – Norton is recognized as the “best medicinal wine of America” in the American Cyclopedia, a Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge.
1900 – Norton’s popularity spreads to winemakers across America. A Frenchman turned Floridian wins medals for his Norton wine at the Paris Exposition.
1919 – Prohibition goes into effect and most vineyards are destroyed. The Norton grape is nearly lost forever.
1965 – Jim Held, having newly re-opened Stone Hill Winery, discovers pre-Prohibition Norton vines (dating back to the Civil War) on a nearby property and brings the variety back to commercial use.
1988 – Dennis Horton, originally from Hermann and now a vintner in Virginia, requests a shipment of Norton vines from Stone Hill Winery, bringing the varietal back to its birthplace.
1993 – An issue of Gourmet Magazine, penned by Gerald Asher, brings attention to the Missouri wine industry and Norton, calling it the “indigenous grape that might yet do for Missouri what Cabernet Sauvignon has done for California.
2003 – Norton is named the Official State Grape of Missouri.
2013, 2014 and 2017 – Norton wines from Stone Hill Winery take home the triple crown at the Missouri Wine Competition for Best of Class Dry Red, Best Norton, and Best Overall, known as the Governor’s Cup.
Now – Norton wines from across Missouri and Virginia win numerous accolades at national and international competitions every year. Norton continues to flourish in Missouri, accounting for nearly 21 percent of all the grapes grown in the state.
Kliman, Todd. The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine. 1st ed., Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2010.
Stover, Ed, et al. “Investigations into the Origin of ‘Norton’ Grape Using SSR Markers.” Researchgate.net, 18 Dec. 2014, Link.
Ambers, Rebecca K.R., and Clifford P Ambers. “The Norton Grape: An American Original.”American WIne Society Journal , vol. 36, no. 3, 2004, pp. 77–87., Link.
Hedrick, U P. “The Domestication of the Grape .” Manual of American Grape Growing, Norwood Press J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co., 1919, pp. 12–12.