Muscadine grapes, vitis rotundifolia are hearty, thick-skinned fruit native to the southeastern United States. Unlike Concords and other traditional grapes, muscadines do not grow in large bunches. Clusters may have as few as three grapes, and the grapes mature and are harvested individually. Early explorers recorded finding an abundance of muscadine grapes, where the fruit was popular with Native Americans. Cultivation of muscadines for wine making began as early as the sixteenth century.
In the wild, muscadines can grow up to 100 feet (30.48 meters) in length. They have heavy vines and shallow roots, and grow best in sandy, well-drained soil. The plants thrive in warm, humid climates and need plenty of sun. The leaves are round and glossy, and can be as much as five inches in diameter. The vines can be seriously damaged if temperatures drop below zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Centigrade), and efforts to transplant them to other climates have been mostly unsuccessful.
Muscadine grapes are also known as Southern Fox Grapes or Scuppernong, which are actually names for specific varieties of muscadine. There are now over 300 cultivated varieties, in yellow, bronze, dark purple and even black. Their sugar content can range from 15% to 25%, depending upon the variety.
Most muscadine vines are diocious, which means that they have either male or female flowers. For best results, both genders should be planted in fairly close proximately to one another to aid in pollination. Some self-fertile varieties have been developed which produce flowers with both male and female parts. For best production results, however, these should be interspersed with female vines.
It is best to plant muscadine grapes along a fence or trellis in open areas with full sunlight. Vines should be planted 10 to 20 feet apart (about 3 to 6 meters), with at least 8 feet (2.4 meters) between rows. While they do require a great deal of water for the first couple of years, mature vines are fairly drought resistant, as long as the dry period does not last more than two months. The vines require annual pruning to maximize fruit production and healthy growth. Vines will begin to produce a harvest within three to five years.
The plants are naturally resistant to many of the insects and diseases which plague cluster grapes. The Japanese beetle is one of the largest insect threats. Muscadine grapes may also be susceptible to mildew and various forms of root and leaf rot. Periodic treatment with spray fungicides and insecticides provide ample protection.
Muscadine grapes are eaten fresh as well as used to make a variety of products, including a broad selection of wines. Sugar is added during the wine-making process of some varieties to produce a sweet, musky dessert drink. The bronze Scuppernong grapes are used to make a dry, red table wine. One advantage muscadine wines have over other red wines is significantly higher antioxidant levels.
Additional products include juices, jams, jellies, desert toppings and syrups. Some companies are expanding their product lines by offering dietary supplements and powders made from muscadine grapes. While the fruit is regional, the internet has significantly expanded the market for these products.