Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What is Wine Made From: The Muscadines

This is part 3 of the What is Wine Made From series.  If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.

Happy new year, everyone! 

The other native grape species would be the Muscadine, including Scuppernong, which is vitis rotundifolia.  This grape is grown mostly in the south east part of the United States as it grows well in sandy soils and hot, humid weather.  This is the only species that is not a bunch grape.  The grapes are more like large berries and ripen individually instead of in groups like bunch grapes.  The other unique part of how they grow is the manner in which they are trellised (as vines, grape plants are usually trained to some sort of trellising system).  Bunch grapes (in other words, all other grapes) are generally planted anywhere from 600 to 800 plants per acre and their shoots trained in one of various systems, of which there are many.  Muscadine grapes need more room since they are generally grown along a single or double wire.  Consequently, Muscadines are planted only 200 vines to an acre so they have plenty of room to spread out.  I had never seen a Muscadine until I moved to North Carolina and was astonished to see them sold individually in baskets in the grocery stores…just like small plums. 

Muscadines are delicious eating grapes but there is a fair amount of wine made from them.  One winery in North Carolina makes about 140,000 cases of Muscadine wine each year.  These wines tend to range from sweet to very sweet, although there are a couple wineries experimenting with dry to off dry offerings and they are pretty nice, well made wines.

Muscadine grapes have a very long history and have been touted as being used as medicine by the Native Americans.  Currently there is a lot of research being done to study the health effects of these grapes and, in particular, the seeds and skins, which are said to have even more benefits than standard red grape varieties.  This is a very intensely debated subject and if you are interested in learning more, there is a fairly new book called Muscadine Medicine, that was written by three PhDs who are involved in various nutraceutical operations.  Nutraceuticals is a term that comes from words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical” and means the study of foods that have medicinal properties. 

To date, I have made wine from numerous varieties of native grapes, including the Muscadine.  The main problem from a winemaking point of view is that they are difficult to press as they tend to slip around (the slip-skins don’t help).  Therefore, a pressing aid is generally used, the most common being rice hulls (and I bet you have been wondering all along what was done with all those hulls from the rice you have been eating!)  Rice hulls are tasteless and are simply mixed into the crushed grapes before pressing.  The wine itself is easy to make as it tends to be simple, straightforward wine with little complexity, concern for aging (as these are generally best consumed fresh and young), or need to manipulate such things as pH or tannin (more on these later).  In some cases, acidity may need to be lowered but, since these wines are generally finished sweet or somewhat sweet, higher acid can be a plus to have a nicely balanced wine.

Next Week: The marriage of different species – The Hybrids

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