I love grapes. Once when I was a child my brother brought me to an empty lot lined with elms and boxelders a few blocks from our house. A patch of concord grapes in an adjoining yard had found its way to this row of trees and spread wildly. Giant pendulous clusters of these mouth-watering globes were everywhere within easy reach. Since grapes were only an occasional treat in our house, we ate until our tongues hurt from the tartness.
In the ensuing years I kept a mental note of every grape arbor that I saw, and by the time I was ten years old I could show you two dozen places to get free grapes on our side of town. Of course, most of them were not in vacant lots, so I did a lot of sneaking for my snacks. I only picked what I could eat on the go, usually a bunch or two, but over the years I'm sure that I pilfered many pounds of grapes.
And then our family moved into the country. Not only was I unfamiliar with the lay of the land in my new neck of the woods, but the farm houses were a quarter mile apart and they all had dogs. I'd have to search far and wide and be really sneaky to get any grapes here. But then I discovered something of interest growing all over the edge of the woods and in all the fencerows: wild grapes.
Upon first encountering these fruits, I instantly recognized them for what they were. Although the grapes were no more than a tenth of the size of the cultivated Concords, their semblance was unmistakable. The leaves, too, though smaller, were nearly identical in form to those of cultivated grapes, and they grew on the same kind of vine with the same kind of tendrils.
Considering all of these striking similarities, I was totally unprepared for my first taste of wild grapes; it was so sour that I spit it out immediately. But I liked the flavor that lingered in my mouth, so I sampled another, cautiously. Yes, it was extremely sour - but it was also extremely good. From then on, I would occasionally pick a cluster of wild grapes when I was wandering outside, sucking on the fruits one or two at a time and spitting out the seeds as I went.
I enjoyed wild grapes solely in this fashion until I was in eleventh grade, when I went on an excursion with my then-girlfriend and her father to collect fruit for making wine. It was early September and we headed to the Baraboo Hills of southern Wisconsin. It was the first time in my life that I went gathering wild food with an adult, and I will never forget it. We checked hickory trees, but the nuts were not yet dropping. We found a huge thicket bearing what are to this day the largest wild hazel nuts that I've ever seen. At an old abandoned farmstead, we loaded up with tart wild apples and plums. We found black walnuts, blackberries, elderberries, black cherries, and we even gathered some prickly pear fruits at a patch that I knew of along the Wisconsin River. What I remember most vividly, however, are the wild grapes.
Mike stopped the car along a little country road at a place where grape vines formed a dense tangle over fifty feet of a barbed-wire fence. He jumped out and ran to the fence, then immediately came back to the car and grabbed a grocery bag. We each took a bag of our own and climbed up to the fence line. I was almost struck speechless by the quantity of grapes that hung there. Meanwhile, Mike had been filling his bag with the kind of excitement almost never observed in grown men. I took his cue and began frenetically pulling off juicy clusters and dropping them in my own sack.
I had amassed five gallons of fruit in twenty minutes from the laden vines, and I had only taken a few steps since I began picking. By the time we left we had bags and boxes of grapes filling the back seat. The next day I sorted, mashed, pressed , strained, and squeezed wild grapes for many hours. After all was done we had seven gallons of the most potent grape juice on Earth. We made five gallons of wine, some mead, some juice, and some jelly. Ever since that weekend I have had a special fondness for wild grapes.
Wild grape leaves are alternate, simple, and deciduous. They are generally three-lobed or heart shaped with very coarsely or irregularly toothed margins and long petioles. The leaves of many species could be described as somewhat maple-like. Grape leaves are fairly large, often six to eight inches wide.
The tiny flowers, five-parted and greenish-white, are borne in large clusters. They are quite fragrant. The flower clusters typically hang from the main stalk opposite from a leaf. They bloom in early summer, after which clusters of hard, green grapes form. In late summer the grapes will soften and darken as they become ripe. The fruit ranges in size from less than a quarter inch in diameter to about an inch, but all kinds can be readily recognized as grapes.
There are a few plants which, to the uninitiated, can be confused with wild grapes. One of the more common is the Virginia creeper, five-leaved ivy, or woodbine (genus Parthenocissus). The leaves of Parthenocissus species are palmately compound, consisting of usually five elliptic or ovate leaflets, as opposed to the simple leaves of wild grape. Virginia creeper vines also do not become shaggy with age. Furthermore, the "grapes" of five-leaved ivy are produced in widely-spaced, umbel-like clusters in which the stems fork in equal divisions (as opposed to the large central-stem branching pattern of grapes). The stems of Parthenocissus fruit clusters are usually bright pink, while grape stems are generally green or straw-colored.
Canada moonseed Menispermum canadense has leaves that look rather like those of grapes in their general outline except that they are not toothed on the margins. Also, the leaf stem of moonseed attaches to the underside of the leaf; this sets it apart from grapes and most other vines. A grape usually contains 2-4 seeds, while Canada moonseed contains a single crescent-shaped seed. Moonseed vines never attain the massive size that grape vines do. It climbs by twining around its supports and has no tendrils.
While it is generally agreed that moonseed fruit is toxic, there is much debate about Virginia creeper. However Parthenocissus should not be considered edible; the fruit has a terrible taste and produces a burning sensation in one's mouth. With some practice one can learn to instantly distinguish between these plants.
It is east of the Plains, however, where wild grapes really flourish. In many areas one can find, in a short hike, five or six species of grape occupying slightly different niches. Notable among the many kinds is the fox grape V. labrusca, found in much of the East. This species is considered by many to be the finest of the wild grapes. The fruits are round and usually ½ to ¾ of an inch in diameter and have a tough skin. Several cultivated grape varieties, such as Concord, Isabella, Catawba, Niagara, Chautauqua, and Worden are derived from the fox grape.
Another well-known wild grape is the muscadine V. rotundifolia of the Southeast, which gave us the cultivated scuppernong variety. These large grapes can grow to be an inch long. They are less tart than most wild grapes and are delicious for eating out of hand. The skins are very tough. Muscadines grow in small, loose clusters, and the individual grapes fallas they ripen.
All wild grapes are sun-loving and intolerant of shade. They are almost ubiquitous along roadsides, fencerows, forest edges, watercourses, and in young, open woods. Vacant urban lots are often full of them. They are also sometimes found in hardwood forests, growing up along with the trees after logging, fire, or a windfall since they cannot reproduce in the shade. In these forest are found the largest of grapevines; oftentimes loads of fruit are mockingly displayed sixty feet out of reach clinging to an oak or black cherry's upper limbs. Wild grapes are truly among the most abundant, prolific, and useful fruits on our continent.
I have of course not had the opportunity to harvest most of North America's wild grape species; my experience is limited to four kinds. Two of these I have only collected in limited quantities. Frost grape V. vulpina, which I collected in late September in West Virginia, had small fruit that I found to be the least pleasant of the species I have tasted. Fox grape, on the other hand, I found delicious for eating out of hand in early October - but this species is also not native to where I live. The vast majority of my experience has been with summer grape V. aestivalis and riverside grape V. riparia. Both of these species are native over a broad area of the eastern United States and Canada and the riverside grape is found further north than any other wild grape. These grapes are small but both species often grow and produce prolifically.
In Wisconsin the summer grape usually ripens in late August and is available until late September, with the best time to harvest being in the middle of that span. The fruits are borne in tight clusters and individual grapes may reach 1/3 inch in diameter. This species usually grows in hardwood forests or along their edges and the grapes are usually out of the reach of humans. Occasionally, when the vines tangle over brush or a fence at the forest edge, they produce copious amounts of accessible fruit. Summer grape grows very large; I know of one enormous vine more than ten inches in diameter.
The riverside grape is accurately named, for the usual habitat of this species is along river bottoms and lake edges. Like most river bottom plants, the riverside grape also thrives in disturbed dry sites and has readily taken advantage of man-made openings. It has spread into agricultural areas, roadsides, rocky hillsides, and railroad corridors. The vines can also be quite large but never equal the size of the largest summer grapes. The fruit of the riverside grape averages a little smaller than that of the summer grape and the clusters are looser. However, this species tends to be near the ground more often, even sometimes producing excellent crops while it is lying directly on the soil. Riverside grape ripens in early September and is usually available until late October - thus it has a much longer season of availability than the summer grape. I once even picked many gallons of riverside grapes on November 3, standing in two inches of snow. Nevertheless, I prefer to harvest mine in the early part of October or in late September.
With either of these species, collecting wild grapes requires little explanation. I simply grab the stem of the cluster and break it off by jerking quickly downward. I pick whole clusters, not individual grapes. I drop the clusters loosely into a bag or bucket, where the springiness of the stems keeps the individual grapes from being crushed and leaking juice all over. (If you are going to use the grapes immediately you can pack them into a bucket without worrying about crushing them.) Crushed wild grapes will quickly begin to ferment.
In good locations you can get several gallons of wild grapes in an hour - and that hour will pass in a flurry of excitement. Then you'll have a huge mess of fruit and you'll be wondering what to do with it.
If your grapes are mostly intact they will store well in a refrigerator or on a cold porch for a week or more. If the fruit is mostly crushed, use it in a few days if you can.
The different species of wild grape were certainly not created equal, and lumping them together as if all could be used in the same manner is misleading. Many books contain recipes for wild grape pie, for example. (Gibbons' Stalking The Wild Asparagus has an excellent one, and the Outdoor Life wild edible plant guide has the same recipe plagiarized.) For this purpose, fox and muscadine grapes are said to be superb, but many of the smaller wild grapes would precipitate a culinary disaster if one attempted to use them for pie. This doesn't mean that the smaller grapes are useless, as some insist; it means that the smaller grapes are different. So keep in mind that every species of wild grape has its own attributes. I will limit my discussion in this section to things that I have made from summer and riverside grapes; the same observations and processes may or may not apply to certain other species. Readers will have to experiment on their own and consult with the wealth of literature discussing species from across the continent.
Juice: These wild grapes make an extremely potent juice. That made from riverside is slightly stronger and more "spicy." Summer grapes are better for eating plain, but still far too sour for most palates. We will begin with grape juice because it is the base for all of the other products.
I usually do not remove the stems from the grapes before crushing them, except if there is a high stem to grape ratio as sometimes occurs when the grapes grow in the shade or there is poor fruit set at flowering time. If I do remove the grapes from the stems I use a fork to minimize contact with the juice, which is very important. About an hour after the juice soaks into your skin, it will make you burn with pain that sometimes reaches considerable levels. Limited contact with the juice will not cause this; it results from the kind of inundation that might accompany handling a lot of grapes to make a few gallons of juice or more. Once the pain begins, washing your hands will help you none; the burning, tingling sensation will persist for as much as four hours. When I am making grape juice I keep a pail of water close by to rinse my hands in whenever I am forced to touch the mash or fruit juice.
I believe that this burning is caused by tartrate, a substance found in grape juice that precipitates from it and forms gritty crystals. My theory is that the juice soaks into your skin and the tartrate forms crystals inside of you, hence, pain. All grape juice is said to contain tartrate, but the quantity varies considerably from one kind of grape to another. Summer grape contains much, riverside grape even more, and muscasdine and fox grapes contain very little. When dealing with these smaller, more potent grapes that are loaded with tartrate, there are really only two options: learn to get rid of the tartrate, or don't enjoy the grapes and subsequently write them off as useful wild fruits. I'll tell you how to get rid of the tartrate after explaining how to get the juice.
I put some grapes, stem and all, plus a little bit of water, into a pot or tub and crush them gently so as not to break the seeds, using a mug or my wooden "stomper." Then I stuff the mash into a jelly bag and wring out the juice, after which I rinse my hands and crush another batch, if there is one. (A few times I borrowed a cider press for juicing and it worked wonderfully.) Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth to remove bits of seed, skin, and stem from the juice. The resulting product is thick, dark purple, and as sour as lemon juice.
Two rules that I follow when making wild grape juice are 1) Never break the seeds, and 2) Never boil the grapes to get juice, or the juice with seeds, skins, or tartrate in it. Both of these rules are to keep strong and sometimes bitter flavors out of your juice.
If you drink much of this fresh-pressed wild grape juice it will give you a sore mouth and throat. (It's that darned tartrate again.) Fortunately, tartrate is easy to get rid of. Just let the juice sit in a container in the refrigerator or some other cool place for a day or two. The tartrate will settle to the bottom; you will recognize it because it forms an ugly grayish sludge. Simply pour off the good juice on top and then discard the tartrate settled on the bottom. The sludge is usually about one fourth of the volume of the grape juice.
Some people who are accustomed to using muscadines and fox grapes, for which it is apparently not as necessary to remove the tartrate, have applied familiar methods to riverside grapes and, unsatisfied with the results, declared the small grapes undesirable. If you make jelly from high-tartrate grapes without removing that nasty substance from the juice beforehand, the jelly will be saturated with annoying pieces of grit that, besides wrecking the texture, impart an unpleasant flavor to the confection. But when properly treated, riverside, summer, and probably all the other small, sour, and maligned grapes of North America produce wonderful products. Therefore I never make anything from these wild grapes without subjecting them to this simple purification process.
Wild grape juice prepared with care as I have described will be very strong but with a clean, refreshing grape flavor. I occasionally drink it by itself or mixed with other juices such as apple. If drunk plain, most will find it necessary to dilute it.
Jelly: Compared to wild grape jelly, the stuff that you buy at the grocery store tastes cheap and watered down. If you like Concord grape jelly, the same thing made with wild fruit will please you three times as much.
Take four cups of undiluted grape juice prepared as described, mix in one package of Sure-Jell and bring it to a boil. Add five and a half cups of sugar all at once and stir constantly until it returns to a vigorous rolling boil. Let it boil briefly for a minute or two (still stirring) until it seems to want to foam up over the top. Then remove it from the heat, pour into jars, and seal.
Many sources claim that unripe grapes contain much pectin and are an aid in getting your jelly to jell. This may be so, but any under-ripe grapes do not get crushed when I process my grapes, and neither do they get boiled as would be necessary to release their pectin.
Many people try to reduce the amount of sugar in jelly because they are offended by how sweet it is. A note on jelly making is that if you do not use enough sugar (at least with normal pectin) the product will not jell. Some recipes call for less sugar than juice, but these will only jell when enough of the liquid in the juice has boiled away to bring it down to roughly the same liquid/ sugar ratio that I gave in the above recipe. Thus, reducing the sugar content in the initial recipe has three possible results: preventing jelling, reducing the volume of jelly, or making you cook the jelly longer. Jelly tastes better the less it is boiled, so you might as well just follow the proportions I listed above, which allow the product to jell immediately. It will work every time. If you think that's too much sugar, don't eat jelly.
Wine: Last year I made wild grape wine fore the first time in five years; before that it had been something of a yearly tradition. I make wild grape wine not for the alcohol, but for the taste. In fact, every year I struggle with the choice of whether I should ingest a known addictive toxin or forego my favorite beverage. I generally do not drink alcohol, but I make a few rare exceptions; wild grape wine is that good. If you are the kind of person who likes a sweet, fruity wine, you'll probably love this one.
Making wild grape wine is also incredibly easy. First, prepare juice as I have described. (Do not leave seeds or skins in the wine as it ferments, as some who have worked with domestic grapes insist upon, or you will ruin the flavor.) Bring the juice almost to a boil and stir in about a third of a gallon of sugar for each gallon of juice. Let it cool to lukewarm and then add your yeast and stir. Pour the juice into whatever container you are going to ferment it in. After a couple of weeks, when fermentation has slowed significantly, taste the wine and add sugar if you feel that it needs some. I let mine ferment for five to eight weeks before siphoning it into bottles.
When I do make wine, I give almost all of it away, and it goes fast. I have never kept any more than about nine months, but none of it has ever gone bad. Making other wines I have had certain problems such as difficulty starting fermentation or wine turning to vinegar, but wild grape juice seems to want to become wine and has never given me any trouble, regardless of how careless I have been with it. If you've never made wine, or never done so successfully, this is the place to start.