Savoring Missouri’s state grape.

The Norton grape is sometimes called “America’s true grape.” Its roots (no pun intended) can be traced back as far as the early 1800s, when a Virginia physician by the name of Dr. Daniel Norton began cultivating it in his experimental vineyard near Richmond, Virginia. Dr. Norton discovered the berry’s unique qualities for making world-class wines. By the 1840s, the grape was being cultivated in Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas. In the 1870s, the Missouri-made Norton wine was winning international wine competitions in Europe and being served in the finest hotels and restaurants.

Cultivating grapes can be a tedious process, and producing good wine can be downright finicky. However, the Norton grape is known for its hardy nature and its ability to withstand extreme temperature, climate, and soil conditions. Norton grapes demand a long growing season, which makes it ideal for the climes of Central Missouri. The varietal is also resistant to disease and rots known to destroy other vineyard stock. Today, Norton is the official grape of Missouri and accounts for about 18% of our state’s grape production, with around 300 acres under cultivation.

Norton is inky in color, and can be characterized as a big, bold, dry red. It is a full-bodied wine with flavors of dark fruits like black cherries, blackberries, and plums and has an aroma of spice and light oak. Even as a fruit-forward drink, Norton delivers balanced acidity and is often compared to zinfandel. Some describe the attitude of the wine as “in your face,” and, like zinfandel, people seem to either love it or hate it.

Aside from being a standalone varietal, the Norton berry is great for blending with other grapes like cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and petit verdot. Winemakers find blending with Norton grapes helps add some color, flavor, and body to thinner wines. Because of their tannic structure and natural acidity, Norton wines may be good candidates for aging. Experts say proper aging of Norton grapes can smooth out the wine’s mouthfeel (harshness) while imparting complexity and depth to the flavor profile.

Of course, to enjoy the best that any wine has to offer, you must pair it with food. Because of its bold nature, Norton can stand up to foods with strong flavors such as barbecue, smoked meats, wild game, lamb, beef, and rich tomato sauce dishes like spaghetti, chili, or marinara. And it’s a lovely after-dinner accompaniment with offerings like spice cake, chocolate, or even blue cheese.

A part of living “The Good Life” is exploring new sensory experiences. If you’ve never tasted Norton wine, the good news is you don’t have to go far to find some excellent bottlings of this native grape. Each year, the C.V. Riley Award is given to the best Missouri Norton at the Missouri Wine Competition. Past winners include wines from:

  • Stone Hill Winery, Hermann (winner 2011, ’13, ’14, ’17, ’19), especially known for their Estate Bottled and Cross J Vineyard lines.
  • Augusta Winery, Augusta (winner 2018), Estate Bottled
  • Chandler Hill Vineyard, Defiance (winner 2015), Savage Norton
  • Montelle Winery, Augusta (winner 2012)
  • Noboleis Vineyards, Augusta (winner 2016)

Fortunately, all these wineries are within easy driving distance. The next time you’re in the mood for a taste of something homegrown, remember our native Norton. 

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