A Southern Native
Few fall flavors are as inherently Southern as a Muscadine. Native to the region, Muscadines are a sweet and musky grape that can be found growing wild and domestically across the South. A rapscallion troublemaker amongst its more uptight European counterparts, the Muscadine is one of America’s oldest grapes. First encountered by Sir Walter Raleigh’s crew in the 1500s on Roanoke Island, it seems likely that the Muscadine has always been around. In 1584, Captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe wrote that the coast of North Carolina was “so full of grapes that the very beating and surge of the seas overflowed them.”
Once upon a time, Muscadines were commonly referred to by old folks as “bullace” because European settlers often misidentified the grape as a wild plum, or bullace. Classified by their Latin name, Vitis rotundifolia, these grapes aren’t as widely cultivated as the Vitis vinifera, or European varieties, but they do thrive in the Southern summer heat. They are also especially resistant to phylloxera, an insect invader known to destroy less hardy vines. Usually deep purple, the rotundifolia species also produces a greenish-bronze grape, often known as a scuppernong, which is a variety of the Muscadine family.
And to answer mankind’s age-old question: Yes, you can make booze with it.
As the owner and proprietor of the Winery at Mercer House in Lexington, South Carolina, Shannon Mercer has been cultivating Muscadine grapes for more than a decade on his 12-acre property for just that very purpose. Reluctant to take on the title of winemaker, Mercer instead refers to himself as a steward of the vines. He considers himself a keeper of the land and its fruit, and views making wine as a natural process that doesn’t require much human intervention.
Mercer made a conscious decision to rediscover ancient winemaking methods and techniques through experimentation and diligent note taking. And, as it turns out, he “rediscovered” a 3,000-year-old Italian style of vineyard management known as field blending. This ancient practice involves growing a combination of varieties together in the field, which are then picked together and co-fermented. Growing more than 50 varieties of Muscadine across five vineyards, this method yields significantly different flavor profiles with each vintage. Given the range of early, midand late-season varieties in each vineyard, a field-blended harvest can last from late June to early November.
Striving to keep his vineyards as natural as possible using eco-friendly, sustainable and organic practices, Mercer explains that Mercer House is a USDA-certified organic winery. Grapes that are certified organic must be grown, handled and processed in a way that uses no synthetic pesticides or chemical herbicides; genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may not be used. According to Mercer, there are a very limited number of USDA-certified organic wineries in the United States, and the majority are located in the Pacific Northwest.
Billed as “the most unique wines you will ever experience,” Mercer House has the stated goal of reproducing the first and oldest wines in America. Whereas many wineries produce syrupy-sweet Muscadine wines, Mercer notes that this common practice isn’t due to an overly sweet quality of the grape, but rather to satisfy the traditionally Southern sweet tooth. By eschewing added sugars, Mercer House produces several varieties of dry wines, allowing the natural essence of the Muscadine to come through.
Beyond this native grape’s distinctive flavor, researchers have discovered that Muscadines are packed with phytochemicals that may be beneficial to health. The seeds and skins of the grapes contain potent antioxidants known to help combat free radicals that neutralize and protect cells from oxidative damage. In addition, the polyphenols in Muscadines help support a healthy immune system, promote healthy skin and provide digestive support. Muscadine seeds may also support healthy cardiovascular function, help maintain healthy blood lipid levels already within a normal range, as well as support memory and brain health.
While the numerous health benefits of Muscadine wine are compelling, they aren’t the primary reason to imbibe. “Wine is about three things,” says Mercer. “Discovery, sharing and exploration.”
A visit to Mercer House encompasses all three. With a one-mile walking trail traversing the 12-acre property, visitors can explore the secluded forest habitat and natural surroundings that include five vineyards, two creeks and three ponds. Their scenic one-hour “Vine and Wine” tours, designed for two to four people, are an opportunity for groups of friends to learn more about the methods and techniques of caring for the vineyard, as well as the winemaking process. Follow up the tour with a visit to the tasting room to discover the flavors of this season’s wine selection.
As Southerners, we will always be drawn towards Muscadines. A native vine draped in nostalgia and memories, it’s our original taste of fall. Whether it’s the puckery flavor of a handful of grapes from the backyard arbor, the heady scent of fermenting juice on the porch or the thrill of sneaking sips from Grandma’s cupboard, Muscadines provide our very own taste of the olden days now that we’re a little bit old ourselves. And, luckily for us, we know just where to find them.
The Winery at Mercer House is located at 397 Walter Rawl Rd. in Lexington, South Carolina. The tasting room is open from Wednesday to Saturday from 3–6pm and Sunday from 1–5pm.