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Monday, August 18, 2014

Wild Grapes


Wild grapes are fairly ubiquitous throughout the South, except for the high elevations of the mountains. These were picked on the roadside last week, in Moore County, NC.  Unfortunately, I didn't know the land owner and couldn't pick more than a handful.  These are my favorite eating grapes when they are a bit riper.  When ripe, they are sweet, tangy and a bit tart, turning a very deep purple, almost black.

Small black grapes... what dose that remind you of?  If you answered pinot noir, you are right.  Although these grapes are of an entirely different family than pinot noir, at this semi-ripe stage, they make an excellent wine that is similar to a good pinot noir.  In fact, the wine made from these grapes is far superior to the pinot noir I'm drinking this moment - a California wine I was unfamiliar with and bought on sale this afternoon.  The wine made from these grapes, at this stage, is slightly fruity, low alcohol, sparklingly acidic, slightly tannic, pale red and has hints of cherry and wild black berries.  The wine I'm drinking now is wholly uninteresting and barely worth the few bucks I spent for it.


As the grapes ripen, the sugars increase and the acidity lowers.  At that point, the wine they yield would be sweeter, less floral, higher in alcohol and would need a bit of acid added.  The wine then, would be more similar to a common Italian table wine.  Or, it could be transformed into a port style wine, with the addition of brandy before it is fermented to "dryness".  Either way, it makes a very drinkable and enjoyable wine.


Ironically, one of the places I recall these grapes growing was also where I sampled the worst wine I have ever encountered.  I will not name the vineyard, but it was a Southern winery (one of the little start ups that have become trendy of late).  The land and setting were perfect for wine grapes.  The vineyard was on top of a ridge, that had once been a tall mountain, weathered down to about 500 ft.  The soil was a rocky and mineral rich.  The vineyard overlooked a large river fed lake that provided  good air drainage.  The only conditions that were not ideal were the intense southern heat (summer days often over 100 degrees) and the humidity.  Good wine grapes could have been grown there, if chosen from the warmer regions of the Mediterranean.  However, the only grapes these folks were growing were cooler climate French varieties.  Most of the vineyard was devoted to chardonnay!  The intense heat resulted in very over-ripe grapes with far too little acid.  To counter that, the professional, educated, chemist, "expert" wine maker added a substantial amount of either citric acid or a commercial acid blend to the very flat tasting chardonnay.  The result was a wine the approximate color of the urine produced by a person who has taken large amounts of B vitamins.  The taste was abhorrent.  It tasted and smelled artificial... somewhat like a jolly rancher candy, if jolly ranchers induced nausea.

The hillside leading up to this vineyard was covered in wild grapes like these.  I asked the "wine maker" if he had tried making wine with the wild grapes.  He scoffed and said, "You can't make wine with those!"  I tried to explain to him that he was wrong, but he became arrogant and insulting, acting as if he was wasting his time with someone so unsophisticated.  After I tasted the swill, which he was so proud to have produced that he entered it in a regional wine contest, I didn't waste much more time talking with him.  I left quickly to find something to get that nasty taste out of my mouth.  Mercifully, the entire vineyard was wiped out by pierce's disease soon after - I don't know what or if he replanted.

My family has made wine, cider, etc for generations.  In the back yard at the old home place was a giant wine press hewed out of a single cypress tree.  It looked like an old dug out canoe, except that it had a hole in one end.  From times predating the Revolutionary War, it was filled with grapes (or apples, peaches, plums, etc) and tilted up at the closed end.  The family would take large mallets and crush the fruit so that the juices ran out of the open end into great barrels.  The wines they made were from wild grapes like these, or their cultivated cousins.  My grandfather made wonderful wines from the many vines on his property, which included larger versions of these grapes and a white variety.  The grapes were known as muscadines and scuppernongs. (Much more on wine making later).

As we had lots of grape hulls left over from crushing the grapes and lots of grape juice on hand, my grandmother made grape hull preserves and grape jelly.  The preserves, especially, were delicious.    I plan to consult with my mother (who is working on a cookbook) and provide a recipe for grape hull preserves soon.  For now, try to imagine the home made biscuits (made with lard rendered from out own hogs and buttermilk from our own cows), topped with fresh butter, split and spread with sweet, tangy grape hull preserves.... maybe some home made, air dried sausage, hot from the frying pan on the side, with a hot cup of coffee with real cream.  If you can do that, you will know why I love Southern food so much!


You would think, with wild grapes being so common throughout the South and their flavor being so good, that everyone would know about them and pick them when in season.  But, that is not the case.  Surely, many know, but sadly, this is yet another piece of wisdom that has too often failed to be passed down through the generations.  Just earlier this year (near where I found these) I met a guy who was clearing grape vines from his property.  "You've got some nice wild grapes there," I said.  "Hell, I've been trying to get rid of these things for years.  What is good about them?"  "Well, they taste great," I said, "and, they make good wine." He was absolutely shocked.  "You eat them?  How do you know they aren't poisonous?"  I told him about growing up with grapes on my grandparents farm.  I'm not sure he believed me.

I hope you will not make the same mistake.  Look for them in any woods or roadside.  I found these growing on a pecan tree.  Even if you just find bare vines, they are worth finding because deer, raccoons, birds and other game animals love them.  Looking for wild grapes is a great way to scout for game animals.

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