Dear DownEast Gardener;
I keep hearing about people making wine from Muscadine grapes. What is the story on these leathery skinned grapes? Can you really make decent wine with these fruit?
Yes. Oh, yes.
Muscadine grape production is a fascinating study of native American fruit culture and product development. According the botany types, North Carolina is home for no fewer than seven different species of grape (Vitis). The Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) has been cultivated for its fruit for hundreds of years. In the southeastern United States, a bacterium-like disease of grapes called Pierces' Disease (Xylella fastidiosa), causes European bunch grape (Vitis vinifera) to slowly decline and eventually die. Pierces' Disease is so prevalent, most European grape varieties will die within 5-7 years following planting in coastal North Carolina. Some native American bunch grapes are also susceptible to Pierces' Disease but new hybrids (between European and American grapes) are now available that show good resistance to Pierces disease. However, Pierces' Disease still limits grape production in areas with mild climates and lower elevations. The disease is spread by a small sap sucking leafhopper insect called a "sharpshooter". Pierces' disease is the greatest deterrent to the production of European type grapes in the United States and that's not all....
The south is the home of phylloxera. Phylloxera is a small aphid-like insect that feeds on the roots of many grape species. In the early 1800's, these insects were accidentally introduced to Europe and other parts of the wine growing world with catastrophic results. All European-type grape vines were very susceptible to the insect and grapes all over Europe sustained massive damage due to the insect. As nature would have it, many native North American grape species are resistant to the damage of the phylloxera. Grape vineyards were re-tooled with phylloxera resistant American grape rootstock grafted to European type vinifera varieties. As a result, nearly all grapes cultivated in Europe today are grown on American grape root stock...something most Europeans and many wine aficionados do not want to talk about.
Muscadine grapes are, of course, resistant to Pierces disease, phylloxera, and just about everything else. Few diseases or insects cause serious injury to the muscadine and it is a perfect candidate for those individuals wanting a fruit crop that DOES NOT require pesticide application for a fruit harvest.
Native muscadine vines are found as either male or female plants (e.g. dioecious) with single fruit or small clusters of fruit on female plants. Male plants will normally outnumber female plants. Plant breeders have improved muscadine yields by selecting for only self-fertile plants or using only female plants. Self-fertile plants are a sound choice for backyard grape culture.
Bronze colored muscadine grapes are traditionally referred to as scuppernong type grapes (among the country folk) but do not confuse this with the muscadine grape cultivar named "Scuppernong". Dark color muscadine grapes range in color from light purple to black. Muscadine skin is tough and leathery regardless of color but the fruit inside is clear to translucent and sweet when ripe.
High fruit yields result from intensive cultivation but I am often amazed at fruit yields of abandoned vines that receive no fertilization, pruning, or care. In essence, the muscadine grape is the perfect fruit for the southeast, sweet and tough.
Wine is the nectar of the vine. I have not made nor would I recommend the making of muscadine wine but would encourage everyone to visit one of the several wineries in the area. Although not a great fan of muscadine wine, I do enjoy a sip once in awhile (for health reasons only) and recently had an excellent red at Grapefull Sisters Vineyard (near Pireway, NC). Mary Ann Azzato at Silver Coast Winery (south of Shallotte) has an impressive operation, good wine, and wonderful hospitality. She offers tours and has a knowledgeable staff to answer your enological questions. Duplin Wine Cellars (Kenansville) specializes in muscadine wines and also has special tour and tasting. Ron Taylor has just opened Lu Mill Vineyard, a beautiful 35 acre property just outside the city limits of Dublin (east of Elizabethtown on NC 87). Check out these publications on the web for additional information about growing muscadine and wine making: (http://www.ncwine.org/documents/muscadineGuide2003.pdf ; http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/grape.pdf ; http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8203.html ). For a list of all vineyards opened to the public, check out the NC Wine website (http://www.ncwine.org/wineries.html#53).