by Melba Allen
The Norton Grape
This summer, we went to the USA for a family reunion, and at the same time, tested a new product in an English-Speaking Market. While traveling there, we got to visit a couple of wineries. Some we knew of already, while others were discoveries. We even discovered a grape. Gerry, a girlfriend of mine who has come to France more times than we have to the USA, and who has each time she made it a point to visit us. She usually comes sometime around Christmas, which even with extra sweaters, the poor girl would freeze to death because we are quite North compared to Louisiana. Although I still hate the cold and snow, I guess I’m more immune now than I realize.
Gerry is a great hostess. She took a week off of her job to spend some time with us. She even picked us up from the airport, chauffeured us from one meeting to another and took us out to the Latin Quarters and even went to Tommy’s, one of New Orleans most trendy Bar and Restaurant, where we not only had drinks , but a lovely dinner New Orleans style, as well. We had a blast!
One evening we had decided to stay in at her place and just relax. We talked about many things until the conversation lead us to wine (naturally), and particularly Louisiana wines. Because we have never tasted wines from this Louisiana, Gerry decided that we couldn’t leave until we’ve tasted wines from her home State. So the next day we set out to do just that. She took us to a Winery not far, to the east of New Orleans called Pontchartrain Vineyards and Winery.
Why this particular Winery versus another? Well while Louisiana presently has six bonded wineries, all of them, with the except ion of Pontchartrain Vineyards, produces wine primarily from Muscadine or other non-grape fruits. Pontchartrain Vineyards is the only winery in the state producing table wines exclusively from grapes. Situated approximately 150’ above sea level on well drained, sandy loam soils, there are somewhere around 35 acres of vines planted with two grapes. Pontchartrain white grape is known as the Blanc du Bois (resistant to Pierce’s disease
), while the red grape is the Norton ( in some places, also known as the Cynthiana). The grape is a true American grape, but it’s origins are debatable if coming from Virginia or …
It is still debatable if the grape is a true American (vitis aestivalis)
or a hybrid. Apparently, the Norton was a grape used widely in the USA, making distinguished American wines before prohibition.
What makes this grape so important for planting today, especially East of the Rocky Mountains? With constant humidity and an unfailing heat wave, the Norton is disease resistant, especially to the Phylloxera, but not only.
Most of Pontchartrain’s wines are sold in restaurants in New Orleans and directly to the customer from their French Provincial style Tasting room. Although we didn’t call, John Seago, the owner was more than gracious and opened up early, so that we could taste his wines. We tasted everything that John had to offer, and was quite pleasantly surprised by the elegance of this unknown grape to our European educated palate! It is true that the Norton is similar to the Pinot Noir coming from the Burgundy
region of France, with a texture of black cherry fruit, but it also has some tendency to be similar to the spicy wines coming from the Southern Côte du Rhône
. Because we didn’t have a lot of space in our luggage to bring back wines, we left the winery with a bottle of John’s 2005 Rouge Militaire, because of its rich berry fruit flavors filling pleasantly the mouth and the palate. He shared with us his passion for what he was trying to do in order to elevate Louisiana wines to another level than the ordinary fruit wines that are actually being produced today. We even got to taste an experimental sparkling wine that was amazingly good and refreshing.
Although John appears the only one in Louisiana who has planted the Norton, we can find this grape planted in small quantities in several States, with Missouri being the State where it is planted most. In Texas, like in Louisiana, there is only one Winery where the Norton is found called Stone House Vineyards and Winery, Spicewood
in the Hill Country.
At Stone House, Angela Moench calls her wine made with the Norton the Claros. Angela is the only one who has latched on to the importance of the grape being Phylloxera resistant and she is making
a beautifully elegant wine with nice luscious black cherries and raspberries, soft tannins giving a medium body.
It is kind of difficult to find wines made with the Norton outside of a few States. But I’m glad we got to visit and taste the Norton made in two different Wineries in two different States, during our visit this summer to the USA. Oh, by the way, Gerry has vowed never again to come to France in the winter!