Meet muscadines, the native grapes of the southern U.S.

When I lived in Atlanta, purple and golden orbs would start to appear just after the heat reached its peak in August, lining the path on the long walks I took from my apartment to the park I frequented. Tucked into crevices among the green leaves, the fruit would announce itself first with its shining, flawless skin, then with a faint scent of sweetness, which signaled that a reprieve from the heat was soon to follow. After freeing the pulp from its skin and seeds, I would casually pop the fruit into my mouth and be momentarily overwhelmed by the flavor of those last long days of Southern summer.

When I’d first moved to Georgia, as a kid, my neighbor had explained to me that these ubiquitous berries were muscadines, or Vitis rotundifolia, a variety of grape that looks — and tastes — nothing like the green seedless grapes I was used to finding in my lunchbox. Unlike table grapes, which tend to be oblong, muscadines are round, with particularly shiny flesh. The flavor is fuller, more complex than that of table grapes, although removing muscadines from their tough, tannic skins presents a far greater challenge than popping a watery, seedless grape into your mouth mindlessly. These fruits, which are eaten raw, cooked and even made into wine, became a symbol to me, marking the end of the brutal Southern summers with a bittersweet exclamation point. And I’m not alone in my nostalgia for the iconic fruit.

Chef Vivian Howard, who was born and raised in eastern North Carolina and still calls the area home, says that when she was growing up, “everybody had a muscadine vine in their yard.”  They were often planted on backyard arbors, where they would provide both shade and a snack. “[My uncle] would pick me up in the driveway after I’d gotten off the bus and take me to the grapevines and put me on his shoulders,” she explains, “and I would pick the muscadines and fill up a shoebox and then just eat them until I got sick.”

What are muscadines?

You won’t find this fruit far outside the bounds of the Southern U.S. That’s because this species, which includes a variety of cultivars (including the iconic scuppernong), is only native to the Southeast, where hot temperatures and plentiful rain allow it to grow both in the wild and in cultivated vineyards. Its range extends from Delaware to central Florida, although most commercial vineyards are concentrated south of Kentucky.

This sets the muscadine apart from other types of grapes, including Vitis vinifera, the species most often used to produce wine, as well as Vitis labrusca, which is typically crossed with vinifera varieties to produce table grapes. These types of grapes are typically suited to colder environments and require a period of dormancy with cool temperatures in the winter to grow properly in the summer months. According to Greg Jones, a wine climatologist and CEO of Abacela Winery in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, muscadine is “a very different kind of species. It fits a niche that Vitis vinifera doesn’t because Vitis vinifera cannot grow, typically, very well in the same climates that muscadine can grow.”

The flavor profile of muscadines also differs from both wine and table grapes. “Once you’ve bit down on a fresh muscadine, juice and pulp bursting onto your tongue, table grapes will seem flavorless,” says Betsy Harris, a forager living in northern Florida. “Muscadines are sweet, but there’s also a pleasant hint of tartness. The skin is much thicker and the seeds much larger, [and] both are usually discarded after chewing,” though some choose to peel the grapes before eating them.

Muscadines in the glass

Although many Southerners tend to think of muscadines as a late-summer snack, eaten just as they’re freshly picked from the vine, the grapes are also used to make wine in parts of the U.S. where Vitis vinifera varieties simply won’t grow. “Here’s the thing: vinifera grapes don’t grow here [in the South],” says Cary Cox, owner of Tsali Notch Vineyard in Madisonville, Tennessee, who makes both sweet and dry muscadine wines. “They just don’t. There are challenges. You’ve got insect problems, it’s too wet, the soil’s too rich, too many rainy days.” But muscadines thrive in these types of climates.

Typically, muscadine wines (not to be confused with the similarly named muscadet, a vinifera grape, or moscato, made with a vinifera variety called muscat) are made in a sweeter style, although some producers are experimenting with drier styles to appeal to a wider audience. These wines — sweet or dry — tend to be deeply aromatic, and they have a ripeness to them that avowed vinifera drinkers may not find immediately appealing. “It’s a rustic grape, and it kind of has some rough edges on it,” Cox explains. Although there are many muscadine wine lovers in the South, these wines are sometimes deemed less sophisticated by the wine industry at large. “People do look down on native grapes,” says Cox.

But according to Jones, it may be a mistake to write muscadine wines off as inferior to their vinifera counterparts. “What is a serious wine?” he asks. “I think it’s a big point. How we view things is how we have historically come to appreciate or consume [them].” Wine drinkers who have learned to prize the qualities of Napa cabernets or pinot noirs from Burgundy may have specific ideas about what wine should taste like, but someone whose first wine experiences were with muscadine wines may prize a completely different set of qualities. “Muscadine grapes grow where they do because the climate is suitable to it. Therefore, wouldn’t you expect a good wine to be made from it?”

Winemakers in Southern states will likely find more success working with muscadines, a native grape, than they would with varieties that may be more well-known but that simply don’t grow well in hotter, wetter climates. “I just always get a little concerned when everybody wants to grow merlot and cabernet and chardonnay, and in reality, those probably aren’t going to work in Georgia,” says Jones. Winemakers “really should be planting the things that work for them, that ripen fruit consistently, that allow them to make a product that they can sell to the consumer.”

Muscadines and climate change

 As the climate continues to change — and as grape growers across the globe increasingly face challenges related to warmer temperatures, changing rates of precipitation and increased disease pressure — hardy, disease-resistant, warm weather-loving muscadines could potentially play an important role in the wine and grape-growing industries. “Every single plant species has an environmental limit,” Jones explains. “When somebody is interested in growing grapes, what they need to do is … find out where the grape they want to grow is suitable to the climate and the ecosystem. You just can’t force it.”

In regions where temperatures are climbing, muscadines could someday provide an alternative to vinifera varieties. “Vinifera fruit is super challenged by climate change,” explains Cox. “The thing about muscadines is that they love it. They love it wet, they love it humid, they love it hot.” In fact, Cox says that he doesn’t have to use any pesticides on his muscadine plantings.

Chris Paulk, the director of winery operations for Paulk Vineyards, shares a similar sentiment: “We use a fraction of the inputs you would use with other types of grapes as far as fungicides, and you don’t have to use any insecticides because [muscadines are] meant to live here.” As grape growers in climates slightly outside the traditional range of muscadine production face warmer weather, these qualities could make growing muscadines vastly more appealing in the coming years.

Even if muscadines don’t eventually creep their way north, drinking muscadine in the Southeast can be a more sustainable way to enjoy a glass of wine. Unlike most wines on the menus of Southern restaurants, muscadine doesn’t have to travel long distances to make it to a wine drinker’s glass in, for example, Tennessee. “A sustainable product is one that is made and consumed locally,” says Jones.

A seasonal, regional treat

These days, Howard says, fewer people are planting muscadine vines at home. Although they’re still a seasonal fruit that only really emerges during the late summer and early fall, thanks to people like Paulk, who sells the fruit as well as wines and preserves, they’re now easier to buy commercially than they were in years past. But for those, like Howard, who grew up eating the fruit, wild muscadines are still an important part of Southern identity. They are “a big part of our history and culture, so I’d hope that people continue to have these backyard arbors and continue to grow muscadines,” she says.

Cox says that one of his first introductions to the fruit was in the form of the muscadine pies his grandmother used to make, their sweetness amplified when baked and served warm. According to Paulk, for many in the Southern United States, where muscadines are native, the fruit is deeply nostalgic. “It’s very versatile, so people have a lot of memories around the fruit itself.”

Although wine drinkers around the world now have basically limitless access to Australian syrah, German riesling, and Argentinian malbec, Southern muscadine wine still stands as a local delicacy, although jams and jellies are available on a wider scale. The wine is a treat that’s near-impossible to find at wine shops in New York or Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, but curious drinkers can still order from many of these wineries online. Something about that hyper-locality, that connection to the land, makes every sip that much sweeter.


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