Saturday, September 25, 2010

Finding Muscadine Magic

Who in their right minds would travel several hours to attend a muscadine festival? The muscadine grape -- famed ingredient in southern wines, pies, and jellies – is again reclaiming its rightful place in food traditions of the American South. Although muscadine festivals are few and “far between,” the best one can be found in North Carolina.

North Carolina Connection

North Carolina, home of the 400-year-old scuppernong “mother vine,” has been celebrating the muscadine annually in late September. The 2010 festival was the sixth consecutive one and offered cooking contests, amateur wine-making competitions, music and dancing, arts and crafts, and educational seminars, but the main attraction was wine tasting because more than twenty wineries participated. Imagine going from one winemaker to another all afternoon (and evening) and getting your palate satisfied. Not just limited to established wineries of eastern North Carolina, the festival also included new ones from the Piedmont as well as South Carolina.

Held in the small town of Kenansville less than 200 miles from the “mother vine” that is reputed to be the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world, the festival showcases the grape that has a distinct fruity or “musky” aroma. Because its juice is sweet with a light taste and aroma, the muscadine, which is native to the U.S. Southeast, is very popular with cooks and winemakers.

Cultivated for centuries, the muscadine, which includes several varieties (including the well-know scuppernong that is bronze and discovered originally growing in the wild), has an extensive history. Native Americans preserved it as dried fruit. In the 1500s Spanish settlements in Florida made large quantities of muscadine wine, according to report of Captain John Hawkins in 1565. In North Carolina the muscadine has had a long prominent presence and was even noted by Sir Walter Raleigh after the Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano, while exploring the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524, had written in his logbook that many “vines [were] growing naturally there.” In fact, the N.C. General Assembly designated the scuppernong, the first muscadine grape cultivated in America, as the official state fruit in 2001. Popular with many because they are so healthy, muscadines contain antioxidants in skins, seed, pulp, juice, and wine and contain more antioxidants than any other type of grape.

Kenansville is an appropriate venue for the festival, a two-day event on the last Friday and Saturday in September. The county seat of Duplin County, Kenansville is a small town of just over 1,000 and was settled in 1735 by immigrants from Northern Ireland and Swiss Germans from Switzerland. The home of the festival is the Duplin County Events Center, which is across the highway from James Sprunt Community College, the only community college in North Carolina that offers a viticulture and enology technology program that focuses on the muscadine grape. Its students prepare for careers in vineyards, wineries, garden center, greenhouses, and related sales activities. (The college’s students won first place in the muscadine blush category in 2009.)

Wine Tasting
The most prominent winery at the festival is Duplin Winery of Rose Hill, N.C. With a tank capacity of over 1 million gallons, it is the largest winery in the South. In fact, it is the largest muscadine winery in the world and produces over 300,000 cases of wine annually. Its wines are excellent, and I enjoyed tasting them. In addition, like many vendors, Duplin Winery offers more than just muscadine wines.

Another prominent eastern N.C. winery is Vineyards on the Scuppernong in Columbia, NC, only a few miles from the Outer Banks. With muscadines grown in Tyrrell County, its tasting room in a restored brick building on the banks of the Scuppernong River, which flows into the Albemarle Sound, seems like the perfect setting for tasting wines that are so much a part of the region’s history. Muscadines were found on a farm in Tyrrell County by Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition, and early settlers who moved into the area discovered the famous scuppernong grapes growing near this river. They are native to the area and since have been exported to all areas of the southern states of the United States.

Although connected to the coastal areas, muscadines are not limited to this region, and muscadine vineyards are springing up throughout the state as I found in making the rounds for tasting:
  • Locklear Vineyard and Winery of Maxton, NC, which promotes itself as one of the first Native American wineries and vineyards in the United States, was officially formed in 2006, although it has been bottling fruits from its vines for three decades and has slowly expanded from a half acre operation in 2003.
  • Its neighbor, Stephens Vineyard & Winery of Lumberton, offers the traditional red muscadine and white scuppernong wines with other specialties, such as green apple, blackberry, blueberry, and peach.
  • The Cloer Family Vineyards, which opened in 2010 in Apex, proves that muscadines have also arrived in the Triangle. Its red muscadine wine was very “noble.”
  • Old North State Winery in historic downtown Mount Airy is part of the developing Yadkin Valley wine region. Using vineyards established on farms that have been in owners’ families for generations, the winery is in a renovated 1890’s mercantile building and produces excellent dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines.
The Muscadine

Thriving in hot, humid and dry conditions, fresh muscadines are usually found from late August through early October. They are well adapted to locations in the South where temperatures stay above 10 degrees F. (Major damage occurs when winter temperatures drop below 0.) Found at roadside markets, vineyards, and grocery stores, muscadines should not be washed until ready to use. If stored in a covered, shallow container in the refrigerator, they can usually keep up to a week.

(Because muscadines have thick skins and contain seeds, eating them requires a brief lesson: First, hold a grape with the stem scar up. Next bite or squeeze the grape into your mouth. The pulp and juice will burst through the skin into your mouth. Then savor the fruity flavor -- but be careful to avoid chewing the bitter skin. Spit out the skin and seeds if you wish -- or simply swallow them as some people do.)

Other Festival Events

In addition to wine tasting, the festival features more than ten hours of live beach music. The educational seminars on Saturday morning include a variety of topics, such as muscadine cultivars, cooking with muscadines, and vines in the backyard.

The cooking contest requires that all entries include a minimum of one cup of muscadine grapes. The wine-making contest has several categories: muscadine red, muscadine white, muscadine blush, and blend, fruit or other. Judging is on color, clarity, and flavor. The winemaking contest is limited to amateurs (no commercial wineries can participate).

Other States

Although the N.C. festival is superior, know that other states are also celebrating the muscadine:

  • The Muscadine Jubilee in Pelahatchie, Miss., occurs in mid-September and has been held for over 25 years. These folks know how to plan. The festival starts with a prayer breakfast and includes a grape stomp. The rules are strict: No stink bombs, guns, or obscene materials can be displayed or sold.
  • The folks in McMahan’s Cove, Alabama, have doubled their pleasure by combining muscadines and moonshine. Their Moonshine and Muscadine Festival is a life-affirming celebration to remember five friends who tragically died in the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, New York, in 1996. The first festival was held in the October after the disaster, and since then it has generated more than $60,000 in college scholarships. Usually held on the first Saturday in October, the festival is now “on vacation” but may return again soon.
  • In South Carolina, the Williams Muscadine Vineyard and Farm has held a festival annually on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend since 2004. Located in Nesmith, SC, the farm showcases operations of an old African-American farm with old plows and farm tools. A centerpiece is the eighty-year-old farmhouse where twenty members of the Rev. Gabriel and Mary Williams family lived.
  • In Georgia, Meinhardt Vineyards & Winery, the first winery in southeast Georgia, holds its Grape Stomp and Muscadine Festival each September.
Y’all Come and Taste

Come to Kenansville in September and taste the juices of the children of the mother vine, which now cover half an acre on Roanoke Island. It’s worth the drive to Duplin County, and tasting history makes it very enjoyable.

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