I get a little flutter in my heart when I catch my first glimpse of one particular family of grapes on the farm market table. It is grape season on the Outer Banks and that means it is time for the big, plump, deep purple and speckled-chartreuse end of summer fruit from the vines that so many of us adore. These are the grapes that cause me to stop and and reflect and have reverence. In the scope of things that are real to me, seeing these grapes means something. The harvest of this fruit is the continuation of generations of families who have grown and shared the most noble of our local vines. These grapes and their producers are our connection to our history and to food traditions and to customs in northeast North Carolina. These grapes are Suppernong. They are Muscadine.
They are native and strong and thick-skinned and slightly proud. They weather salt and wind and rain and sun – all in intense doses. They are rugged. They are also complex and slightly misunderstood and almost nothing like the grapes you find in the supermarket. Do not expect them to be.
Like most Outer Bankers who happen to have similar exteriors, these grapes have a sweet-tart surprise on the inside. Carefully avoid the seeds and you will experience two textures, two flavors and a blast of juicy yumminess that is known only to these grapes.
Eat them gently. Study them. Respect their provenance. Try biting through the thick skin and taste just a bit with the attached, juicy center. Close your eyes and think about someone doing the same thing hundreds of years before. Try popping one in your mouth and splitting open the skin with your teeth as you enjoy a blast of fresh grape juice. If the seeds become a bother, remember, you can always halve them before serving, and remove the seeds.
The homeland of these grapes, a sacred spot called Mother Vineyard on Roanoke Island, is home to the oldest known grapevine in the United States. While the original cultivators of the over 400 year old vine may never be known, what is generally acknowledged is that the fruit, a Muscadine variety, was the first grape used to make wine in the New World. They are worth finding at local markets. You will not find them at the grocery stores.
Muscadine in a Glass at Sanctuary Vineyards
If you want your grapes already made into wine, be sure to check out several varietals at Sanctuary Vineyards. Their wine called Sweet Serenity is crafted with the locally grown Muscadine grape. It’s not the cloyingly sweet wine you used to know, and it’s one of Sanctuary’s best sellers and summertime favorites. Other Sanctuary wines made with Muscadine grapes include The Plank, a sweet red; and The Lightkeeper, a sweet rosé.
Sanctuary creates more than a dozen wines using a variety of grapes. Their Jarvisburg tasting room is open daily, Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from12 to 6 p.m.
Thursday nights are a great time to head to Sanctuary Vineyards. That’s when they have their free summer concert series called Acoustic Sunsets. Pack up a blanket or lawn chair, fill a picnic basket, or better yet, pick up dinner from the on-site Thyme and Tide Café. You can enjoy a free wine tasting and live music while you gather with friends on the north lawn of The Cotton Gin, Sanctuary’s sister-store in Jarvisburg. This is a family-style event, so kids and pets are welcome. Enjoy Acoustic Sunsets on Thursday nights, from 5 to 9 p.m. through mid-September.
Sanctuary Vineyards and The Cotton Gin also have a Sunday event called Sundays in the Country. Enjoy wine and burger pairings from Thyme & Tide Café, live bluegrass by Jug Tucker from 1 to 4 p.m. and hay rides from 12 to 5 p.m.
Sanctuary Vineyards, 6957 Caratoke Highway, Jarvisburg. 252-491-2387; sanctuaryvineyards.com