It’s no secret that chefs, diners and home cooks have all embraced the farm-to-table and local food movements. And that trend may be just the boost that’s needed for one North Carolina agricultural product that’s more used to being the butt of a joke than served with a cloth napkin.
“Some restaurants, a lot more lately, have gone to serving and cooking with muscadine wines, a lot more than five years ago,” said Jonathan Fussell, who owns the Duplin Winery with his brother David. “Our wines used to be one or two out of a hundred. Now it’s more like 15 to 20.”
Fussell’s account is backed up by recent data tabulated by the North Carolina Muscadine Grape Association.
“Over the past five years, the number of muscadine grape growers has increased exponentially,” said organization spokeswoman Ashley Graham Phipps. “People want to grow them for personal pleasure, and most of our growers have seen an increase in food use.”
While established in 1973, the association is just now compiling a survey of member vineyards, and while numbers are preliminary, they provide a useful state-of-the-grape snapshot.
“For the first time, we actually have very in-depth knowledge of what people are growing,” Phipps said. “They had been able to do an estimate of the vineyard acreage, but it wasn’t accurate. And they didn’t have any idea as to the kind of varietals that were grown.”
The association will release total acreage data once participants have been completely tallied, but initial findings indicate a far wider array of muscadine varietals than anticipated. At least 33 types are grown in the state, with the popular Carlos cultivar – a white wine favorite – leading the way at 31 percent, followed by top red wine and juice grape Noble at 19 percent. Rounding out the top five, the fresh market Triumph grapes come in at 10 percent; red wine grape Magnolia at 8 percent; and table grapes Tara with 7 percent.
Muscadine grape products have enjoyed a considerable boost since a 1996 study was published suggesting a high concentration of the antioxidant resveratrol in the fruit. While subsequent publications have found conflicting information about the substance’s efficacy and the degree to which it’s present in the grapes, muscadines continue to prosper from the perceived health benefits.
Wellness claims aside, Fussell said the wine’s most distinct characteristic, its sweetness, which is often the subject of scoff, has helped the company find a foothold in an unlikely market. Newly wealthy Asians are enamored with the sweet wines he makes, and a growing number of cases are flowing overseas.
“We get requests all the time to go to China and India,” Fussell said. “The demand is very strong, but the problem is there’s not enough to supply it.”
While oenophiles are unlikely to embrace muscadine products anytime soon – as evidenced by the dearth of bottles in area specialty shops – Pious Choi, owner of The Wine Sampler, said it isn’t from lack of effort on his part. Rather, he’s found that his clientele prefers drier vintages.
“I’d put pink shampoo on the shelves if my customers would buy it,” Choi said.
Duplin Winery, the top producer in North Carolina and a top-40 bottler nationally, averaging well over 300,000 cases sold per year, won’t earn any sneers from Choi, though.
“Everything has its time and place. I don’t care if it’s a box wine or jug,” he said. “A dollar is a vote, and when you get voted for that many times, who cares what the snobby wine industry thinks?”Posted by