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Crimson Cabernet? Is This Some Geeky Harvard Wine?

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

This post was written by:

- who has written 283 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

Editor and co-founder of Enobytes.com, Pamela is a former restaurant manager, wine buyer, and sommelier with WSET, CMS & Center for Wine Origins certification. She has contributed to or been quoted by various publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Sommelier Journal, Vegetarian Times, VIV Magazine, UC-Berkeley Astrobiology News, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and USA Today. True to her roots, she seeks varietal and appellation integrity and is always passionate about finding the next great bottle of wine.

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12 Responses to “Crimson Cabernet? Is This Some Geeky Harvard Wine?”

  1. Good article. We grow Norton at our vineyards in Defiance, Missouri. Rumors of the UC project have permeated this area for a couple of years. We are proud of the Missouri Nortons, but anxiously await the results of the Norton/Cabernet hybrid. But we are also glad to have UC show an interest in wine growing east of the Cal. – Nevada line. You won’t believe what’s out here!
    Dale Rollings
    Yellow Farmhouse Winery
    Defiance, Mo
    http://www.yellowfarmhousewinery.com

  2. I am the inventor of Crimson Cabernet. The second sentence on our website spells out that we are not directly affiliated with any governmental or educational institution but are a privately owned company. All our research and breeding was done in Davis, CA and nearby Winters where the USDA Germ Plasm Respository is located. Our test vineyard was moved to Illinois in 2003 so as to test these new vines under the most stressful conditions. We currently have certified growers in 14 states from Michigan to Louisiana and Virginia to Arizona.

  3. PS The name ‘Crimson’ was not only used because it was an excellent descriptor, but also because of my Harvard connection (Class of 1962).

  4. enobytes says:

    Hi Lucian, thanks for the comments! I’m really looking forward to trying some of these wines. Let me know when they are available for release, and where I can get my hands on some.

    PS – Harvard class of 1962; so it seems as though the title is fitting. Is that you in the picture above? Just kidding :)

    ~Pamela

  5. There will some commercially produced Crimson Cabernet and Cabernet Dore’ available for sale after the first of 2011. Look on Davisvines.com for further info after the first of the year. Thanks.

  6. enobytes says:

    Lucian, this is awesome! Thanks for touching base and letting us know. I’ll definitely buy some..

  7. Jancsi Millner says:

    This is very interesting. I often think that breeding is often much like genetic lottery. Of course, some good parents may increase the odds, but even still, tons of failure, a little success… What I find promising about this is that it has some backing from California. So much of the CA wine industry craps on hybrids. Many of the recent hybrids coming out are of great quality and have many other advantages over pure vinifera, cold hardiness and better disease resistance among them. Perhaps this may open a greater dialogue of hybrids use in CA themselves. Most hybrids in the US have been bred in northern climates for cold hardiness. This appears to be less of an issue in this case, but the disease resistance is worth a lot. If fungal spraying is cut in half because of it, this is more economical and at the same time better for the environment and general consumption by customers. It seems a pretty obvious benefit to me worth exploring at least.

  8. Hi Pamela,

    I have made CrimsonCabernet wine from the very hot summer of 2012 harvest and am wondering if you have tasted wine from these grapes? I would like to compare notes with anyone else out there you may know and am wondering what kind of developments I can expect since bottling.

    • Pamela says:

      I have not tasted the ’12s David, but I’ll be sure to connect you if I come across others that have…

      Out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on the ’12s? Are there any raisiny or baked characteristics from the heat or did they fare well?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] probably be very excited to hear about the new hybrid created at Davis Viticultural Research: crimson caberrnet. As a great post on Enobytes reports, this new grape has been created by crossing Norton, one of the most appreciated varieties of North [...]

  2. [...] a blend of Cabernet and something-or-other like I assumed. If your a wine geek, here’s the background on the Crimson Cabernet grape. Banrock Station Crimson Cabernet 2011 was sweet and not in a way I enjoyed. So sweet I went [...]

  3. [...] is an actual grape variety, not a blend like I assumed. If your a wine geek, here’s the background on the Crimson Cabernet grape. HOWEVER the Banrock Station Crimson Cabernet 2011 IS a blend. I know. So confusing. I wonder what [...]


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