The swill, the sniff, the sip, the swish. The thoughtful wrinkling of an upturned nose.
The art and ceremony of wine can be traced back thousands of years—more than enough time, it would appear, to develop a bit of pretention. The wine industry is one that revolves around its exclusivity: not content to pass judgment based on something as bourgeois as taste alone, winemakers have come to assess the value of a grape on what seems to be a loosely-wrought scale of its rarity, its blue-blooded fragility, and the relative unpronounceability of its name.
Enter then, the muscadine. Hardy and plump, thick-skinned, sweet, and a little wild, the muscadine grape and the wine that bears its name have been the impetus of eye rolls and troubled sighs from vintners across the globe since its first fermentation, yet it’s high time that this irreverent little chubster was given its due. Thick as a Southern accent and sweet as a summer evening, muscadine wine deserves to be celebrated.
Complaints about muscadine wine center chiefly around its taste. Connoisseurs claim that it’s too sweet to be taken seriously, yet here in the South, where we’ve been known to favor things—from heat and humidity to the tenacity and timbre of a cicada’s call—at an intensity that offends the delicate sensibility of our Northern counterparts, the syrupy sweetness of muscadine wine just fits. As is often the case with many Southerners themselves, however, it would be a grave error to confuse this sweetness with a lack of refinement: muscadines have a genealogy that stretches back hundreds of years.
Discovered in 1524 in the Cape Fear Colony of North Carolina by Giovanni de Verrazzano (who eloquently christened the fruit “the big white grape”), the muscadine soon proved its worth as a prolific producer, and by 1854, had made its way to garden patches and homesteads, making it the first grape to be cultivated in the United States. From the original Mother Vine (which, with the true steadfastness of Southern spirit, is not only still alive but still producing fruit) over 300 cultivars have been developed in a spectrum of sun-swollen shades of bronze, black, red, and green.
What the muscadine may lack in ancestry (four hundred years of cultivation is a drop in the bucket to more discriminating palates) it more than makes up with its tenacity. While other, more delicate European and American varieties require the gentlest touch and a cocktail of pesticides to keep them upright, the muscadine flourishes with a uniquely Southern buoyancy, enthusiastically bubbling up in wild patches throughout a seventeen-state cluster in the Southeastern United States. You’ll find no anemic vines clinging to a rocky hillside here; let an errant muscadine vine drape against the ground and chances are it’ll take root. While vintners across the globe spend their time praising diminutive clutches of dusty fruit, a mature muscadine vine will produce up to twenty pounds of grapes, and if left unchecked, will even grow into a canopy lush enough for you to enjoy them under. As if this weren’t enough, the muscadine is chock full of unique antioxidants, and—largely thanks to its quintessentially thick Southern skin—is virtually impervious to the myriad number of bugs, bacteria, and viruses that leave other, less hearty vines withering in the dust.
Muscadines may lack the acidity, the austerity, the palatary gravitas preferred by the who’s who of the wine world, but that doesn’t make them any less delightful. Here in the South, we like things a little slower, a little sweeter, and a little untamed. The French can keep their Bordeaux, the Italians their Sangiovese, and the Napa Valley their Cabernets. We’ll keep our muscadines.