Photo by Wendy Wilson Billiot
It is safe to say that few in our state realize the potential of the amazing wild fruit produced by Vitis rotundifolia, a vine that isn’t well known outside the southeastern states. Its fruit reminded early European settlers of the familiar Muscat grape, and the term “Muscat” evolved to the contemporary “muscadine.”
Bearing the name of a lake near which they were found, Scuppernong, the gold-colored muscadine was discovered in North Carolina in the 1500s. Muscadines range in color from light gold to almost black; and while all scuppernongs are muscadines, not all muscadines are scuppernongs. Here in South Louisiana, wild muscadines are usually the dark-purple variety. Look up during a walk in the woods during fall, and you’ll see large, trailing vines dropping colorful globes of goodness on the ground. Pick one up and try it: put the stem end in your mouth, puncture it with your teeth, then squeeze the grape to suck out the pulp. Prepare yourself for a unique, musky-sweet-sour flavor, nothing like the taste of table grapes.
Eating these grapes whole isn’t the best way to appreciate them, though, because unlike table grapes, the skin of the muscadine is thick and somewhat bitter. Muscadine connoisseurs instead make delicious jellies, jams, sauces, and syrups. They dry the leaves to use as tea or to mix with other herbal teas. They also enjoy them stuffed and eaten, just like the stuffed grape leaves served at Middle Eastern restaurants. A yellow dye can be made from the leaves, too.
Though wild vines grow across South Louisiana, muscadine cultivars have been developed specifically for wine making. Traditionally, wineries discarded the skins and seeds during the wine-making process; but in 2001, North Carolina businessman Bob Dalton discovered that these discarded parts have twice the antioxidants as the whole grape, more antioxidants than blueberries, and more polyphenolic compounds than merlot. With more than two hundred phytonutrients packed into each little globe, we should all be gathering buckets of this natural superfood from our woods.
While Dalton and his followers pioneered products made from the skins and seeds, muscadine vineyards and wineries cropped up in Louisiana. Resistant to disease and pests, these native grapes grow more easily here than European or American cultivars. Muscadine vines appreciate our mild winters and don’t need months of freezing temperatures to set their fruit. Muscadines are bigger than other grapes and hang individually from a stem, rather than in clumps, making them easier to harvest, especially when growing on an arbor.
Louisiana vineyards now grow a wide variety of muscadines in an effort to appeal to different palates. The gold scuppernongs, with names like Higgins and Carlos, are used to make white wines. Pink-colored grapes, named Darlene and Scarlett, make beautiful rosé wines. The darker grapes, like Ison and Sugargate, vary in color from light purple to dark purple to almost black and present a range of flavors, from sweet to dry.
Exotic names like Allons Dansé (sic) and Esperanza certainly pay tribute to the promise of these outstanding native wines, but unfortunately, Louisiana wines aren’t in wide demand by wine distributors because the wines slowly turn brown as they age. Even though the browning doesn’t impact the taste, retailers are concerned that consumers just won’t purchase an off-color wine. If that matters to you, then muscadine wines are best consumed as young wines, not aged.
South Louisiana boasts four vineyards and wineries. I suggest that you visit the websites of our native wineries before visiting; some varietals are seasonal, so you’ll want to double check the availability of the wine in which you are interested. Louisiana vineyards and wineries making muscadine wines include Amato Winery, Casa de Sue, and Feliciana Cellars; and in Natchez, there's Old South Winery. If you prefer to enjoy a sample nip closer to home, Casa de Sue offers tastings at The Cajun Village in Sorrento. Better yet, check your local grocer’s wine shelves. And if you’re a teetotaler (or the sweetness of muscadine wines isn’t your bag), try instead the beautiful jams and jellies that deliver a distinctive, tart flavor, so unlike the grape jelly Mom put on your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Details. Details. Details.
For recipes using muscadines in jams, jellies, sauces, and syrups, you can download this pamphlet from the LSU Ag Center:
Old South Winery: oldsouthwinery.com Amato Winery: vinoshipper.com/wines/amato_s_winery_inc Feliciana Cellars: felicianacellars.com Casa De Sue: casadesuewines.com