Tasha Brandstatter on July 21, 2016 6 Comments When we think of wine grapes, we usually think of varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or even less exalted varieties like Gamay, all of which are European varietals. But North America also has its own native grapes, which grew wild long before European settlement. Early colonists were floored by the abundance of grapes growing on the East Coast. Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, when exploring the Carolinas for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, described the American landscape as, “so full of grapes, as the very beating and surge of the Sea overflowed them…in all the world the like abundance is not to be found.” The grapes that these men encountered were Muscadine Scuppernongs, and the wine made from them was sent to Queen Elizabeth I. Later colonists were required to cultivate native grapes, the fruit of which was used to make jelly, jam, juice and, of course, wine. So why isn’t Muscadine wine more celebrated today? The answer is that these grapes make a very different type of wine from what’s found in Europe. Different, but not necessarily bad! Let’s take a look at this indigenous grape and the wine it produces. What is Muscadine? Muscadine is a wild-growing grape native to the southeastern US and portions of Central America. Unlike European wine grapes, it thrives in warm, humid climates. You can find it as far south as Florida, up through Delaware, and as far west as parts of Oklahoma and Texas. Muscadine grapes are relatively large and grow in small clusters. They can range from very dark purple in color – almost black – to bronze and green-colored grapes, which can produce both white and red wines. Most of all, Muscadine is known for its extremely tough, thick skin. This helps the grapes resist rot and mildew in their native humid climates, but can also present challenges in wine making. It’s important to note that this grape is not a cultivar of Vitis vinifera, and shouldn’t be confused with Muscat, which is native to the Rhône Valley. In fact, Muscadine is entirely its own subspecies, called Vitis rotundifolia. But you thought only Vitis vinifera grapes made wine? That’s not exactly true. While Vitis vinifera is the most ideal grape for wine making, in actuality any species of grape can be fermented to make wine – it just won’t taste like European wine. Muscadine can be made into good wine, but requires different techniques from that of Vitis vinifera. Muscadine Wine This grape varietal has been used in wine production since the Spanish started settling Florida in the 16th century. Today, the oldest cultivated grape vine in the US, and possibly the world, is the 400-year-old “Mother Vine” found on Roanoke Island. It covers half an acre and produces Scuppernongs, the bronze-skinned grapes that are used to make dry Muscadine wine. Other Muscadine wine grapes include Magnolia, Carlos, Noble and Doreen. Aside from Scuppernong, Noble is probably the most popular variety for Muscadine wine making, as it’s very aromatic and richly flavored. Carlos, on the other hand, can produce a sweet, Riesling-like white wine. In fact, aside from those made with Scuppernong, Muscadine wines are on the whole quite sweet. Many are labeled as dessert wines such as sherry or port. This is because Muscadine wine makers need to add sugar – or, in some cases, sweet fruits like apples and blackberries – to their wines to make them more palatable. The Muscadine’s thick skin can impart a bitter aftertaste, and the aggressive fermentation techniques needed to break the skins down can sometimes give the resulting wine a harsh flavor in the hands of inexperienced wine makers. Aside from the skins, the other major challenge winemakers run into with this grape is browning. Both the red and white wines start browning very quickly, usually within a year, so unlike other sweet wines, Muscadine can’t be stored for an extended period. Enjoying This Wine at Home Despite some of its challenges and differences from European grape varieties, this is an excellent wine to enjoy at home, especially if you live in the South and like your wine on the sweet side. Muscadine dry wines pair well with seafood, beef and lamb, and the sweeter wines are perfect for enjoying with dessert. Since Muscadine vines are so ubiquitous in the South, commonly found growing wild or used for ornamentation in gardens, it’s relatively easy to make your own Muscadine wine at home if you live in the southeastern United States. A simple Google search for Muscadine wine will return hundreds of recipe results and tips on finding and harvesting the wild vines. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of making your own wine (and who can blame you), there are numerous wineries producing Muscadine wine all through the southern US, mostly in Florida and the Carolinas. Many Muscadine wineries, such as Monticello Winery in Florida and Southern Oak Wines in Alabama, use organic, eco-friendly farming practices. Don’t live in the Southeast, but still want to try this wine? Mothervine Vineyards – home to the Muscadine Mother Vine – sells cases of their Mothervine Wine online. Yes, you can drink wine made from a 400-year-old vine! What Makes Muscadine Amazing Muscadine also has other, less tangible benefits aside from producing wine, which makes it a pretty awesome plant just in general. For one, it’s super resistant to common grape vine diseases and pests, like Pierce’s Disease or phylloxera. Phylloxera is a type of aphid that decimated and nearly destroyed France’s wine industry in the 19th century. It was only by grafting Vitis vinifera roots with those of phylloxera-resistant American vine species like Muscadine that France was able to save their vineyards. So you could say Muscadine saved French wine! But that’s not Muscadine’s only natural defense system or plus point. It also produces tons of polyphenols, the chemicals found in red wine grape skins that scientists believe are responsible for red wine’s heart health benefits and cholesterol-reducing properties. Since this type of grape has even redder and thicker skins than normal red wine grapes, it seems logical that its health benefits could be even greater than that of typical red wine, and it’s often touted on websites as a cancer- and disease-preventing superfood. It should be noted, though, that so far little scientific evidence has been found to corroborate that belief. Studies into arterial health and cholesterol effects from Muscadine wine have been inconclusive. More promising research has been done on Muscadine’s ability to prevent certain types of cancer due to the large amounts of polyphenolic antioxidants it naturally contains, but clinical studies have yet to prove that definitively. Still, there’s a lot to love about this versatile wine. Try some today!