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Mississippi’s Great Wine Grapes: Muscadines “Vitis Rotundiflolia,” verses Bunch “Vitis vinifera”

Suzanne White

One of the best known summer crops is the grape. While most have eaten grapes and have heard of the varieties used in wine making, not many know of the Muscadine. Vitis Rotundifolia is a native of the southern US and is a little known bunch grape used to make excellent wines on par with those found in Tuscany and France. I recently had the pleasure to attend a Master Gardener Short Course for Grapes and Muscadines in Verona, Mississippi. As a grower of Muscadines for jams and jellies I had almost no knowledge of their use in wines. Growing grapes for wine requires warm summers, mild winters, for dormant season chilling, and depending on the variety lots of humidity. Site selection is also very important. Full sun is recommended as well as well-drained soil that contradictorily has to hold water well, this strange soil should be located on a slight slope at a good elevation with great air circulation all preferably facing an easterly direction. North Mississippi fulfills most of these requirements and is becoming a hotspot for commercial grape growing.

It’s a good idea to plan out the vineyard a year in advance after having the soil tested and prepared. Both grapes and muscadines require a pH of 6 to 7 for successful growth. While tilling the soil to depth of 8 inches, at least, will do for a small backyard garden, it’s better to plow the soil to a depth of 20-24 inches for optimal commercial use. It’s an excellent time to begin a weed management plan as well. Building a sturdy trellis or training support system for the vines to grow on along with a simple drip irrigation system is essential before planting. The ideal planting time for grapes and muscadine vines is January to February.

There are many key factors to think about, such as the winery demands  to process the fruits, the fruit quality production/yields, climate & pests, and consistent year to year yields, while the hardest decision to me was choosing which cultivar to grow. There are three different bunch grape vines types: “Vitis vinifera” also known as Old World varieties, Interspecific Hybrids also known as French varieties, and American varieties. Some good varieties are being tested in Mississippi at MSU, such as “Blanc du bois, Champagne, Conquistador, Lake Emerald, Mid-South, Miss Blanc, Villard Blanc, Cynthiana, Daytona, Victoria Red.” As for the many varieties of Muscadines there are purple or bronze cultivars like “Black Beauty, Cowart, Ison, Nesbit, Higgins, Fry, Pineapple, Summit, Sweet Jenny, Tara, Albemarle, Noble, Magoon, Carlos, Dixie Magnolia, Roanoke, Scuppernong, and Sterling.” When choosing cultivars make sure to check whether your vine is self-fertile (does not need a second plant) or is Female (which requires a second self-fertile plant) for pollination. Once the cultivar is decided upon then the training of your vines can begin.

It takes at least three years before you can expect a great fruit production. During your first year, directly after planting, training is mainly to establish the roots of each vine to produce a strong trunk that are essential for healthy plant success. Remember to make sure to remove all side shoots during this year. The second year after a trunk is obtained, allow two shoots to each side of the very top of the trunk to grow. This will make the arms of the plant where the smaller shoots will be able to produce the fruit in your final third year of training the grapes.

At this stage, you are ready to begin producing quality grapes for wine production or eating for harvest in late August, followed by fall pruning and planning for the years to come.