Muscadine 101

Guest: “I am a connoisseur of wine.”
Myself: “Excellent, and what are your favorites?”
Guest: “I am a connoisseur of Muscadine wine.”
Myself: (Broad smile.)
This may seem like an oxymoron, and I did have to stifle a chuckle when he answered “connoisseur of Muscadine,” but I’ve been in this business over two decades and I gave up much of my wine snobbery years ago. If you look up the term “connoisseur” the first definition is “expert,” and he was most certainly an expert in this category, even if the foxy character of most Vitis labrusca doesn’t appeal to most Vitis vinifera fans. Over 150 years ago the most popular wine in the United States was Virginia Dare, from North Carolina, made of the Scuppernong grape. It was named after the first European child born to the lost colony of Roanoke and was very popular for nearly a hundred years. Has our palate changed so much?

First there is some debate and Vitis muscadinia is often separated from the other two major Vitisvinifera and labrusca and the lesser-known hybrids now called labruscana. These are all under the botanical genus of Vitisand Vitis vinifera originated in Europe and the Middle East and includes all the famous wine grapes we know from Chardonnay to Cabernet, and from Arneis to Zinfandel. When the first European settlers came to America they found that the grapes they brought from Europe (Vitis vinifera) did not thrive on the East Coast, due to extreme winters and disease. They did find that some natural crosses occurred thanks to bee pollen exchange, and these grapes were sturdier. The Alexander, from Pennsylvania, was one of the first, but soon Concord, Catawba, Isabella, Delaware and Niagara were discovered.

Technically these crosses and hybrids are not Muscadine, though they are related. Muscadines are indigenous to the Southeastern United States and Mexico, and Scuppernong is the most famous. Most of our Southern wines are from Muscadine grapes like our two biggest producers in Florida, Lakeridge and San Sebastian, as well as North Carolina’s Duplin. They proudly use the “foxy-tasting” grape that grows so well here, and the high sugar content helps to balance the rustic, musky flavors we often describe as “foxy.” Taste is subjective and many people do not find those characters off-putting while many vinifera lovers do.

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The labrusca and labruscana from the Northeast tend not to have as much of the foxy character as their Muscadine cousins, since the climate is cooler and grapes like Catawba and Cayuga (as well as the infamous Concord) tend to shine there. A lot of upstate New York and Finger Lakes wines use these grapes like Hazlitt Red and White Cat and our brand new Arctic Fox from Fox Run. These wines show plenty of sweet fruit but have a nice crispness from their cooler weather origins that keeps the wines lighter and less cloyingly foxy. The Arctic Fox, in the cool blue bottle, is 100% Cayuga (developed from the hybrid grapes Schuyler and Seyval Blanc) from Lake Seneca. The grape is also grown in the Pacific Northwest and can be used to make a pleasant sparkling wine. The Arctic Fox has almost Riesling and Viognier characteristics, with plenty of sweet floral notes. Yet it still has that cool weather acid to balance the sweet flavors. Think tangerines and peaches up front with a nice mineral hint on the clean finish. Off-dry, so it can pair with spicy Mexican or Cajun foods, as well as with salmon or roast chicken, all for just $10 per bottle.

Even if you are diehard Vitis vinifera fan, explore outside the box and try some of our indigenous varietals. If Muscadine is too funky for you, explore the Finger Lakes and give Catawba and Cayuga a try; you might be very pleasantly surprised. These cool wines are perfectly refreshing in our hot summer heat!

Daniel Eddy

ABC Wine & Spirits Sales Manager
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinedane

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