The Cabernet of the Ozarks


I’m a bit of an epileptic wine drinker. I enjoy uncovering, researching, and most of all, drinking, unconventional wine varietals. Once encountered and tasted, rarely do I return.
That being said I am making a bit of an exception this week because I really like this wine. Plus, I’ve encountered a new, very tasty version of the grape. First identified in 1770, Cynthiana (sin-thee-ah-nah) is the oldest native North American grape in commercial cultivation today. Many suggest that the grape is native to Arkansas, which is why Cynthiana is sometimes referred to as the Cabernet of the Ozarks. It is almost identical to the Norton grape, which has been commercially available since 1830 and, as you may remember, is refined and cultivated by Virginia physician, Dr. Daniel Norton.
I first discovered the Norton about a year ago and traveled to Virginia to taste it. In March, a family member from Tennessee told me about a signature wine they were making from the Cynthiana grape at Beachaven Vineyards. The wine was sold out everywhere, but they lovingly got me a bottle and drove it all the way to Connecticut for me to enjoy, so a big, heartfelt thank you to Lindsay and all the folks at Beachaven down in Clarksville, TN.
When it comes to the Cynthiana, I’m not sure if I should describe it as Norton revisited, Norton remixed, or just Norton continued, because I don’t want to shortchange the respect I have for this wine. My Norton was from Cooper Vineyards in Virginia, a 2010 reserve, and the Cynthiana a 2008 from Tennessee.
Both wines are unique, so to try and compare them to other wines does them a disservice. It’s hard to describe, and until you’ve tried them you’d be hard pressed to understand. Both taste very similar to Cabernet, but these dry reds are a little sweeter and spicier. The color is a rich red, with raisins and a hint of vanilla one the nose. I admit, I sniffed almost as much as I sipped. And let me tell you, the sipping was an experience in and of itself; a medium body with the flavor of cherries and berries. Both the Norton and the Cynthiana were nearly identical in taste, color, and aroma, and I am convinced the grapes have to be the same.
The one thing I remember most about drinking these wines was the exceptional stress relief they gave. I had to pay my taxes right around the time of this visit, and outside of work nothing stresses me out more than taxes. One sip of my Native varietal and the worries of the world were as far away as the vineyard where it was made.
When people think of wines from the United States their mind’s eye turns towards California, Washington, or Oregon. That’s okay, those states produce great wines, but to be honest I’m all jazzed up over the litany of other places making fantastic wines at super-affordable prices. And at the same time, they’re also resurrecting Native wines, which is nothing short of wonderful.
The Norton and Cynthiana grapes are just the first on what I hope will be a long journey of discovery for me. On that recent trip to Texas I heard of the Mustang grape, a varietal I am eager to try. There are also grapes native to the Hudson Valley that I want to sample: Baco Noir, Chambuucin, Chelois, and DeChaunac to name a few. There are new wineries being developed all over the country, and I look forward to trying them all.
I have this dream of going to Italy, buying a canary yellow Fiat 500, and driving vineyard to vineyard across the country. In my current state–sober–I know that isn’t going to happen, but the idea of taking my dark gray Murano to have a taste of something local is certainly a much more achievable way of making myself happy. As Omar Khayyam said, in a phrase that always makes me smile, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and tho, is all I need.”

One thought on “The Cabernet of the Ozarks”

  1. Norton (Cynthiana) grapes: A study done at Florida A&M has narrowed down the parentage. Parker, Bordollo, and Colova published a paper in Acta Horticulturae in 2009 that states, based on DNA analysis, that V. aestivalis, V. labrusca, and V. vinifera are all involved in the parentage of Norton. The vinifera cultivar is ‘Chasselas’. The researchers also discovered that PD resistance is derived from V. aestivalis. But wait, there’s more! They also found that Norton and Cynthiana are genetically identical, ergo, they are the same cultivar. ~ Dr. Eric Staphne (OSU), Dec 1, 2010. There are now 280 Norton wineries in 25 states. After trying over 130 Norton wines, we have five or six favorite vineyards from MO, VA, TX and GA.

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