As 16th century European explorers landed on the shores of modern-day North Carolina, they continually wrote home about the grapes. In 1584, a British captain described a land “so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them.” The following year, another globetrotter claimed the region contained “grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater.” These strangers were captivated by none other than muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia), America’s oldest known species of native grape. And where there are grapes, wine is never far away.
On Roanoke Island, the pioneers encountered a variety of muscadines that produced large, round, bronze-green fruit. They came from what is now the oldest known cultivated grape vine in the United States (it’s still alive). After more than four centuries, this “Mother Vine” has a two foot–thick trunk and has, at times, stretched more than half an acre. Explorers initially dubbed the variety “Big White Grape,” because—relative to the other purplish-black muscadines around—they were exactly that. Pickers could literally shake the ripe fruit off the vine, yielding plentiful quantities of exceptionally sweet, slightly musky juice housed in protectively thick, bitter skin. As such, its popularity grew, and locals renamed the grapes “scuppernong” because the vine flourished near the Scuppernong River in the Tidewater region of North Carolina.
By the 19th and early 20th centuries, muscadines—and scuppernongs, in particular—were an integral part of the Southern wine industry. Just before and after Prohibition, Americans’ favorite wine (at least by popularity) was the scuppernong-based Virginia Dare. However, even after Prohibition’s repeal, muscadine vintners of the day never managed to return to their previous glory. Despite containing potent antioxidants, the fruit’s seeds and thick skin (40 percent of its entire weight) made it a far less competitive crop in modern markets.
Today, several North Carolina wineries still produce scuppernong wines, including a few made with the fruit of the Mother Vine itself. These white wines tend to have a distinct sweetness balanced by acidity and the historic grape’s characteristic musky flavor.
Where to Try It
The largest muscadine vineyard in North Carolina offers a sweet scuppernong. They offer tastings every 15 minutes and tours April through August.