Missouri wine has an interesting history
In the early 1990’s Missouri was finally getting noticed among serious wine lovers—drinkers and oenophiles alike. The state had turned a corner from it’s highly-sugared Concord and Catawba offerings to wines that are considered “dry.” One red wine in particular was bold with big flavors, such as dark, dew-dropped berries and spices. It paired well with decadent chocolates and aged cheese. The flavors also cut through Missouri barbeque, steak and venison. It carried the label of a varietal known as “Norton” or “Norton-Cynthiana.”
The Norton grape is an American grape that was first found in 1835, near Richmond, Va. The clusters are small to medium sized with small blue-black berries. It’s very hardy, a vigorous grower and one of the most disease resistant grapes. It ripens late in Mo., often two to three weeks after the Concord grape.
According to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, Norton was introduced to Missouri by German immigrants who settled in Hermann. Wine made from Hermann-grown Norton grapes actually won a gold medal at the 1873 Vienna World Exposition.
With this commercial success at such an early date in Missouri’s wine history, why did wine from Concord grapes steal the show from Norton grapes for so long? Annette Alden, the marketing director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board thinks it had to do with taste-trends of the period, but there is nothing definitive in the literature.
In 1984, the Concord grape trounced all other varieties with over 600 acres planted to the crop. Catawba acreage was near 225 acres, both relatively small acreages that reflect the youth of the wine industry in Missouri at this time. Norton barely existed with about 10 reported acres. As of 2015, that acreage had grown to over 350 reported acres.
“Consumer’s palates change as they age,” says Alden. “A consumer first introduced to the market may like a sweeter wine initially, but as their palates change, they shift their preferences to a drier, full-bodied, bold wine, such as the Norton.”
Most Norton wines are made so that they are ready for consumption once released, but they do become more complex with age and can be aged for up to five to ten years.
“Norton isn’t a widely known grape to a lot of consumers, however in competitions, it stands up and performs among the more widely-known varieties such as the Merlots or Cabernets,” adds Alden, proudly.
That sounds like a challenge waiting for a solution. Alden says her biggest hurdle is trying to educate consumers about all the varieties that are grown in Missouri.
“The problem is the perception people have about Missouri wines,” she says. “It’s something we are really working to overcome.” She says she hears many times about the reputation bestowed upon Missouri wine. “It’s all sweet.”
A look at the inventory of many grocery store wine shelves lends credence to this belief, much to the chagrin of dry wine drinkers who are relegated to settling for a cheap, dry import.
“They’re not familiar with the Norton or the Chambourcin or other dry varietals that are available,” adds Alden. She adds,that’s not to say many consumers aren’t aware of the dry varietals available, particularly from California—they simply don’t want to give the dry Missouri wines a try. You can lead the horse to water . . .
Still, there are positive signs.
"Today, more and more knowledgeable wine drinkers are taking a second look at the Norton wine" said Executive Director Jim Anderson. The board just thinks it will take more time before buyers are convinced that Missouri’s Norton belongs on their shelves and in their red wine balloon crystal glass. It may take more social proof, even though Missouri Norton wines have won awards across the country and overseas.
As part of the board’s education effort, they have declared the month of January as Norton month. For additional information on Norton, other Missouri varietals, wineries and wine trails, visit www.MissouriWine.org.