When discussing wine, it is important to know its origin to fully appreciate its complexities.
In terms of wine grapes, Vitis is the go-to genus of choice. Vitis stems into two main subgenuses: Euvitis, which contains bunch grapes like Europe’s V. vinifera and the United State’s V. labrusca (the Fox grapevine); and Muscadania, which then branches into three subspecies: V. munsoniana, popenoei and rotundifolia. For the case of Florida wine, most, if not all winemakers use muscadine cultivars from the subspecies V. rotundifolia.
In the lineup above, it’s easy to pick the Muscadine grapes (center) from a crowd. Producing a larger berry than traditional bunch grapes like Merlot or Chardonnay, Muscadines grow in small clusters with vines growing freely throughout the Southeast United States. In fact, many consider the plant to be an invasive weed clustering in around their yard and garden.
The rotundifolia family tree, or vine, is vast with more than 100 cultivars, though the Carlos (white) and Noble (red) varieties are the most popular wine grapes in Florida, with Welder and Magnolia (both white) making a fine wine as well. Most muscadine varieties are large in size, and come in a range of colors from bronze to pink to dark purple and black, have a clear and translucent pulp, and grow in clusters of four to ten grapes per. A southern staple, the muscadine’s thick skin allows it to flourish in heat and humidity, giving it a range throughout Dixie from Delaware to the Gulf, while making it relatively resistant to disease, primarily Pierce’s Disease, the scourge of American vineyards.
The scuppernong, a variation of muscadine named after the Scuppernong River in North Carolina, is a mammoth of a grape, ripening a greenish to bronze hue, and was made famous (at least in my mind’s eye) by Charles Chesnutt’s short story, “The Goophered Grapevine” [Atlantic Magazine, August 1887], and has also found a place among Florida vintners.
But for all the variations the muscadine cultivars offer, there are draw backs to the grape. Clustering in relative small numbers makes hand harvesting a losing proposition; many cultivars produce lower juice levels; and the high Brix (sugar) level makes for a pretty sweet grape. Hybrid “bunch grape” strains using muscadine as a backbone (the heat and disease resistance are admirable traits for the South), developed by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in partnership with the Florida Grape Growers Association, are finding more vineyard space as strains are improved upon. Blanc Du Bois (named after Emile DuBois) and Stover (named after Lauren Stover, another Florida grape-growing pioneer) are popular hybrid cultivars, grown most notably by Lakeridge and San Sebastian wineries.
“They lend themselves to a much dryer, crisper type of wine,” says Brian Cox, president of Lakeridge and San Sebastian. “They kind of taste like a Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, something of that nature.”
Muscadine grapes on the vine.
But hybrids have their own set of problems, making them more fickle than the hearty muscadine, thus harder to grow. Hybrids generally have a thinner skin, making them more susceptible to disease and poor weather conditions. But this is double-sided: the thinner skin lends to a dryer, crisper taste, like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, even Pinot Grigio. Since they are more difficult to grow and tend, not as many vineyards grow these grapes, limiting wine production: “We don’t have significant plantings of some of these hybrids, so we might only be able to produce say a thousand cases of Blanc du Bois or 500 of Stover,” says Cox. “When it’s gone it’s gone. We have to wait till next year to get the grapes that we need.”
Some of San Sebastian Winery wines utilizing hybrid grapes.
But limited production can be a good thing. With limited supply, this prevents a flood on the market, so the wine is sometimes hard to come by, creating demand due to its rarity. But on the other side of the coin, these wines are often more palatable to the casual wine drinker accustomed to V. vinifera-based wines, making for an easier transition to the sweeter muscadine wines of the south, so the limited quantity could result in fewer converts.
One thing UF researchers and growers have yet to develop is a red muscadine grape hybrid that lends itself to a dry red, “but they’re working on it,” ensures Cox. “They did a good job with the whites, so sooner or later we’ll see something.”
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