The prime wine growing regions in Missouri are in the central, eastern, and southwestern sections. In 1873, a Norton wine made just south of St. Louis
was declared the “best red wine of all nations” at a competition in Vienna. A year later a French panel studying American wines at Montpellier gave the Norton from Missouri the same rave review. Many fine hotels and restaurants of the time served the wine and soon word began to spread. It is said that President Grant was particularly fond of the wine and kept an ample supply in the cellar of the White House. They tried to grow the grape in California, but without much success. Between 1850 and 1900 , the grape was grown successfully in quite a few southern and Midwestern states. It was even grown in France, on a small scale, for some time in the late 19th century.
Oenophiles are now saying that the Missouri Norton compares to the great red wines of Europe like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. The Norton wines are dry and earthy with a taste similar to Merlot and Pinot Noir. The Norton is now primarily a Midwestern grape and has really helped with the rise of wineries in the middle of the country in the past few years. The Norton is a true American grape that has been sold as wine since 1830.
Recently the Mount Pleasant Winery just north of St. Louis in Augusta has won its first Governor’s Cup in the 2005 Missouri Wine Competition for the gorgeous 2003 Norton. Mount Pleasant’s Norton had to outshine 200 other entries to achieve this award. In the last five years the competition has awarded the Governor’s Cup to the Norton three times and twice to a port. Because most Missouri ports are Norton-based, it’s safe to say that the Norton grape variety tends to dominate the judging, media, and our perception of what our wineries do best.
Now the venerable Norton may be getting a little competition from the growing interest of Missouri winemakers in a grape called Chambourcin. The wine is a lovely Nouveau-style red that is light and fruity. While the Norton is a native American grape variety, the Chambourcin is an American-French hybrid. It is one of the most popular red grape varieties grown in the Eastern states. About 20 states grow the grape as compared to about 10 for the Norton. It is also popular in Canada and Australia.
Montelle Winery, also near Augusta, is one of the primary producers of Chambourcin in Missouri. The winery has won a gold or silver medal every year in the Missouri Wine Competition which is truly a stellar achievement considering the dominance of Norton in our state’s wine judging.
Awards are nice to garner, but the ultimate test of whether or not Chambourcin has arrived lies with Missouri wine lovers. One indication of things to come however, is the fact that one of Missouri’s wineries, Hermann Hill, has named a room after the grape.