N.C. Farmers Use Muscadine Grapes for More Than Wine
North Carolina’s state fruit is the grape, so it is appropriate that the first grape to be cultivated in the country – a bronze varietal muscadine called the scuppernong – was discovered in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River Valley.
“Grapes and wine are ingrained in the heritage of this state, and it is evident by the love this industry has seen from the public,” says Whit Winslow, executive director of the NC Wine and Grape Council.
So, what exactly is a muscadine grape? Ron Taylor of Lu Mil Vineyard and Winery in Elizabethtown, and creator of D’Vine Foods, explains the grapes we’re used to seeing at the grocery store, called the bunch grape, are mostly of European descent.
“Muscadines are the ‘regular’ grapes,” he says.
The primary difference between muscadines and other families of grapes can be seen in their physical attributes. The muscadine, a larger-sized berry with a thick durable skin, falls into either “bronze” or “black” categories, with scuppernongs being the most popular variety. Ervin Lineberger, of the 88-acre Killdeer Farm in King’s Mountain, says the individual grapes grow in clusters of four to eight large berries rather than large bunches with many smaller berries. For this reason, growers typically harvest muscadine grapes by individual berry rather than whole clusters.
This grape contains many beneficial nutrients, with 40 times higher antioxidant levels than any other red grape. Its ellagic acid and resveratrol content help with anti-aging, anti-inflammatory effects, and lowering cholesterol, and the fiber content is also very high – five times the amount of fiber as red grapes. After the juice is used for wine, the muscadine skin, pulp and seeds can be turned into nutraceutical products. The grape’s seed is a nutritional supplement in meal replacement bars, vitamins, soaps and paints.
The thick skins or hulls of the muscadine have a jelly-like inner pouch that contains the seeds, which is surrounded by a very sweet juice. Traditionally, says Lineberger, to eat a muscadine, you bite a small hole in the stem end of the grape and suck the pulp into your mouth as you squeeze the berry with your fingers. Some of the newer fresh-market varieties are crunchy textured and have edible skins that make the eating process easier and more enjoyable.
Lineberger, who grows 35 acres of muscadines, is a fresh-market grower with some of his product allocated to a local winery. In 2003, he and his family decided to become 100 percent wholesale. Check the label the next time you purchase muscadines; you may be buying his grapes at Wal-Mart or Food City, among other stores.
Long before muscadines were considered for winemaking, people likely ate them solely as a fresh fruit. Winslow calls the muscadine “the perfect snacking food” and says his personal favorite way to enjoy these grapes is simple: fresh. Whether straight off the vine or from his local grocer, he says, “I cannot get enough. Often, while popping a grape in my mouth with one hand, I’m reaching for the next grape with the other.”
As muscadines are more readily available in the fresh market, their popularity has skyrocketed. If you’re looking for ways to use muscadine grapes, consider these ideas. Freeze whole grapes so you can whip up a grape hull pie and have a taste of late summer while in the trenches of winter. Swirl a reduced muscadine compote into a cheesecake for a show-stopping look or make a cocktail to usher in the weekend. You can also make vinaigrettes, simple syrup and marinade with this versatile fruit.
“The muscadine is a great focal point for dishes in the South,” Winslow adds. “I have seen sweet tea sweetened with muscadine juice, pizza made with muscadine skins and, my personal favorite, a muscadine cobbler!”
When you want to purchase already-made muscadine products, look no further than Taylor’s D’Vine Foods, sister company to Lu Mil Vineyard.
“We’re passionate about muscadine grapes grown at Lu Mil Vineyard and sharing the many offerings our cherished rural lifestyle will provide for the future,” says Karla Ward, who oversees business and market development for Lu Mil Vineyard/D’Vine Foods. The Taylor family has been in agribusiness for more than 100 years but recently launched D’Vine Foods as a way to market muscadine food products as demand increased.
Filled with specialty food items made from Lu Mil’s 58 acres of grapes, the vineyard gift shop features muscadine and scuppernong (alcohol-free) ciders, juices and jellies, as well as spiced muscadine butter, salsa, syrup, vinaigrette dressing, grape leaf pickles and barbecue sauce. Plus, you don’t want to miss their famous alcohol-free muscadine cider slushies.
“We make these and about 150 other locally sourced natural products at D’Vine Foods, our large family-owned FDA approved manufacturing facility just up the road in Elizabethtown and wholesale to thousands of customers all over the United States,” Ward says.
Beyond growing muscadine grapes for wine production and fresh market, Lu Mil Vineyard offers U-pick grapes open to the public and an annual Lu Mil Vineyard NC Grape Festival the second Saturday of October. During the festival, they celebrate the muscadine harvest with a huge grape stomp competition and cash prizes for the winners.
Since muscadines do not grow in other countries or very far outside the Southeast, fresh muscadines are available only for a limited time – approximately Aug. 1 to Oct. 15.
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