Muscadine Grapes: An Often Underappreciated Southern Treasure

The Asheville Museum of Science in collaboration with The Collider invited the owner of Jewel of the Blue Ridge Vineyard to give his presentation on an often underappreciated southern treasure. At the Mountain Grape School on his vineyard, Chuck Blethen teaches farmers how to sustainably grow, care for, harvest and make wine from native cold-hardy muscadine grapes.

“My biases is that I like good wine,” Blethen said. “I train Asheville Wine & Food Festival judges every year, so I know what good wines are. I’ve trained hundreds of people to judge wine over my lifetime. North Carolina has some fabulous wines, but we also have something the rest of the world is jealous of, and that is muscadines.”

Muscadine is a category of grapes. There are Vitis vinifera grapes, which are European, French-American hybrid grapes, Native American grapes such as Concord, Catawba and Niagara, and there are muscadines. “Having worked in vineyards and wineries around the world, when I moved here and started seeing this funny grape show up on my radar I was astounded. Everything you heard and read from the North Carolina Cooperative and so fourth said muscadines don’t grow in the mountains, it’s too cold.”

Blethen’s research brought him to the “mother vine” on Roanoke Island in Dare County, N.C., a monstrous scuppernong vine that snakes back and forth, creating a gnarly mass. Scuppernog is a variety of the muscadine grape native to the basin of the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. “This vine is over 400 years old. It was the very first wine grape producing vine from when the settlers came in the 1500s.” Virginia Dare from the Lost Colony was the first English child born on the continent.   

The Virginia Dare Winery website states that it was started when two businessmen known as the Garrett brothers purchased North Carolina’s Medoc Vineyard. Established in 1835, it was the state’s first. “The business eventually became Garrett & Co., producing the Virginia Dare wines which quickly became one of the nation’s top selling wines. With the start of Prohibition in 1919, Garrett & Co. was forced to move, first to Brooklyn, New York, and then to Cucamonga, California, where the business transformed into the Virginia Dare Winery,” the website states. The family of American film director Francis Ford Coppola now owns it.

Blethen said before Prohibition North Carolina was the largest producer of wine in the United States. “I’ve lived in six states, and I’m very alcohol and wine laws. I teach classes about it at the community college. No place else in the United States are the laws so complicated as they are in North Carolina. There are 17 different kinds of alcohol licenses you can get in the state.”

When Blethen moved the mountains of Marshall in Madison County, he researched 14 varieties of grapes that he thought would thrive there. He posited that the temperature, soil, and precipitation would provide an ideal environment. “Every time I would come someplace to present a talk about this, there would be some old guy sitting in the back with bib overalls on and a little bit of snuff rolling down his chin saying, ‘I got some of them there muscadines growin’ in my backyard.’”

After copying down the address, Blethen and his wife would visit to investigate what many, many times turned out to be a mistaken identification on the part of the farmer. “We rode up some of the doggonedest creeks, and hollers, and ridges in Madison County 40 times in three years,” but they were false alarms until one day he prevailed. “Sure enough they were there,” he said.

Blethen asked when the farmer had planted them. “My great granddad bought this farm back in 1815, and he told stories about gettin’ sick as a dog from eatin’ all them muscadines,” was the answer. Neighbors corroborated the farmer’s account, the vines had been there for generations. Blethen took samples and showed them to the directors at the N.C. Cooperative Extension office, who despite the evidence insisted it was impossible.   

The truth is that muscadines grow from Texas to Florida and Delaware, and yes, the eastern two thirds of North Carolina. There are 15,000 varieties of grapes, but only 300 varieties of muscadines, all started from the same mother vine. “Only one is cold hardy,” Blethen said. Muscadines don’t grow in bunches like other grapes with bitruncated tendrils, so they do take more effort to harvest. Muscadines grow in clusters with unbranched tendrils, a distinction important for proper identification. Their leaves are smaller, and the trunks of their vines are relatively smooth.   

Muscadine vines present both male and female flowers, with some self-pollinating. While most grapes are spaced at eight feet apart, muscadines are planted 20 feet apart, so there are fewer vines to maintain, and their yield is three times greater. They are disease and drought resistant, so they don’t require irrigation, insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides. It takes six years after planting muscadine vines to harvest the first grapes, but once the vines are established they will produce for the next 50 to 80 years. These considerations taken in tandem should offer sufficient incentive for growing muscadine grapes.

Blethen concluded his presentation with a few comments on toasting and how to properly hold a wine glass. Wine glasses should always be clear, colorless, and thin. “Most people don’t realize this, but wine tastes better out of a thin rimmed glass. Trust me, I’ve done hundreds of blind tastings with people.” The glass should be held by the stem, or preferably to foot, so as not to warm the wine with heat from one’s hand, or cloud the glass with fingerprints.   

Blethen is also the author of “The Wine Etiquette Guide,” and offers consultation services on growing Katuah Muscadine grapes. For more information visit his website at www.JeweloftheBlueRidge.com.

# # #

Photograph by Mark-Ellis Bennett:

4096 – Chuck Blethen gives his presentation about the science behind muscadine grapes at The Collider for the Asheville Museum of Science.