If you’re not into Viticultural research, I’ll forewarn you ahead of time that you’d probably enjoy getting your tooth extracted more than you would reading this post.

If research bores you to death, then run, run for your life! If wine geekness is setting in and you enjoy learning about wines & vines and a bit of history, then read on and let the wine geek force be with you.

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The reality is nothing quite as entertaining as the suggestions offered as answers, and yet the actual answer is something quite groundbreaking in the world of viticulture. Simply stated, it’s a new patented grape vine, which is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Norton.

What the heck is Norton anyway? I know! I know! It’s that anti-virus software, right? I’m sure some of you are thinking it might as well be some sort of virus

software application or bug because this grape is certainly far from a household name – and if you haven’t heard of it, who cares, right? Well, Norton has a long rooted (and crazy) history in the U.S., not to be confused with the Argentinean producer Bodega Norton, and over the years, the Norton grape acquired a host of synonyms including Norton’s Virginia Seedling, Virginia Seedling, and Cynthiana.

Hang with me for a moment and I’ll brief you on a bit of history. To start, it’s a native North American grape once considered a staple of American winemaking prior to Prohibition. It’s now grown in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic States and has the ability to make wines taste like a European or California wine, regardless of where it is planted. In 1873, a Norton wine from Missouri won “gold” at the Vienna World Exposition, and was once touted as America’s up and coming variety. Henry Vizetelly, a noted critic of the time, said that Norton from Missouri would one day rival the great wines of Europe in quality and quantity.

Unlike a number of other Native American grapes, Norton lacks the “foxy” flavors and odors typically found in other native grapes, producing good quality dry table wines that are richly pigmented with hints of cedar, elderberries, cherries, spice, chocolate, coffee and raspberry.

Many consider Norton as one of the best American grapes, so it doesn’t seem logical or necessary to breed it with one of the World’s best wine grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. So why would Davis Viticultural Research breed them? To put it into perspective, Crimson Cabernet (not to be confused with Banrock Station Crimson Cabernet) takes the best of both varieties and combines them to produce a superior grape.

Norton is known to be a rampant grower and difficult to manage, producing small berries and an overabundance of seeds. On the positive side, the grape is highly responsive to different sites and growing conditions not to mention its resistance to Phylloxera and fungus diseases. Cabernet, on the other hand, doesn’t do well in continental climates and many of the wines can be somewhat light and lacking in the middle palate if grown in the wrong climate. Powdery Mildew and winter damage is also a big concern. On the positive side, it’s hardy and resistant to rot, and when grown in the ideal climate, provides superior structure and flavors which express the typical characteristic of the variety.

If you’ve managed to hang with me until now, you’ve probably come to the realization that combining the two vines appear to be ideal as they seem to compliment one another. That’s just what Davis set out to accomplish. They managed to combine the two vines producing a 75% Vinifera Crimson Cabernet that is more resistant to fungus diseases and winter damage (experimental growing withstands temperatures -9° Fahrenheit). The new vine provides a more full-bodied wine, which delivers a unique high quality Cabernet profile.

If your wondering why no commercially viable hybrids of Norton existed until now, its because Norton has proven difficult, but not impossible, to breed and grape breeding itself is a daunting task. It’s a task one can only accomplish during a relatively small timeframe of a few days each year and requires removing the male parts from the grape flowers under a magnifying glass.

According to U.C. Davis, the great 19th Century grape breeder Thomas Munson stated that in his experience, fewer than 1 in 1000 vines that he bred would be equal to or superior to one of the parents. It’s no wonder why there are so few wine grape breeders today.

Davis has several acres of experimental vineyards in Missouri and Illinois, where they began planting the Crimson Cabernet vine. The real test will come when wineries begin to harvest the grapes from the Midwestern states where the climate, disease pressure, and varying soil conditions provide for the ideal testing ground.

To date, over thirty growers are experimenting with the vine, which makes it worthy of monitoring its progression in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic States. I hope to get my hands on some of the ’07 vintage, for which Davis plans on releasing later this year. If anyone has first hand experience growing the vine or has tasted what this vine has to offer, I’d love to hear your comments.


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Photo credit: Harvard Gazette