Muscadine grapes have always been a big deal in the South, but not everyone loves them. Bunch grapes are more familiar to most, especially as the migration of "northerners" to the southern states continues. Research on bunch grapes was done in Mississippi many years ago by N.H. Loomis (USDA) in Meridian and then by Mississippi State University researchers after he left for California. The work culminated in the release of three cultivars, 'MidSouth', 'Miss Blue', and 'Miss Blanc'. However, little work has been done in the last 20 years in Mississippi on bunch grapes in spite of the unfettered planting of vineyards across the U.S. After my experience working with vineyards and wineries in Oklahoma with Oklahoma State University, I decided to see if there was reason to revive the research here in south Mississippi.
Just after I moved here in 2011, my wife Richelle (also an ASHS member) and I went for a visit to the brewery where we met Mark Henderson, co-owner of Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company located in Kiln, Mississippi. We asked questions about the brewery biz and he asked what we did for a living. After telling him I worked with grapes, he became very interested and said he wanted to source some local grape juice for a project. I told him, “good luck” because there was none to be had. Later, I connected with a local grower, Dr. Wayne Adams, who had some fruit but not enough to supply Mark. After moving here, I thought my days with grapes was probably over, but what I have found out is there there is a strong interest in Mississippi just like everywhere else. Thus, I planted grape vines in response to Mark's request. In 2014, I wrote a Specialty Crops Block Grant funded through the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and USDA-NIFA that focused on grape education and I am in the midst of teaching a short course during 2015. My small vineyard helps to bolster that education component.
This year the vines in my vineyard were in the 3rd leaf. I harvested a little fruit last year, but this year was the first “big” harvest. Since most of the harvested vines were part of a study, I did various measurements on them (total weight, cluster and berry weights, ºbrix, TA, pH), but I had a conundrum — what do I do with the fruit? The majority of the harvested grapes was from three cultivars: 'Blanc du bois' (a very good white wine grape released by Dr. John Mortensen at University of Florida. It is widely grown along the Gulf Coast region in Texas), 'Miss blanc' (released by Mississippi State in 1982), and 'Villard blanc' (a French-American hybrid). All have resistance or tolerance to Pierce's disease (Xylella fastidiosa). I also harvested a little from 'MidSouth' (also released by Mississippi State University in 1981). In the end I gave it all away, some of it to folks who helped harvest, but also some to help Lazy Magnolia do some experimentation of their own.
Unfortunately the 'Blanc du bois' was not in good shape. It had a good bit of rot caused by early season anthracnose (Elsinoe ampelina), then bunch rots. The very rainy month of May (11+ inches) did it no favors. However, 'Miss blanc' and 'Villard blanc' were in relatively good shape.
After getting the fruit in from the field, we took some data measurements then pressed it for juice. Mark and Travis from Lazy Magnolia came up to help with that process along with my collaborator Dr. Donna Shaw (another ASHS member) from USDA-ARS in Poplarville.
It is a very messy job, but being able to taste the fresh juice is rewarding. Of course it happened to be one of the hottest days of the year, but then again it is July in South Mississippi! We were able to get about 20 gallons of juice from 18 'Miss blanc' vines. A couple of days later we got 10 gallons of juice from 17 'Villard blanc' vines. I also gave Mark about 2 gallons of 'MidSouth' juice (which is acidic but has an intriguing “raspberry” flavor). So he has between 25 and 30 gallons to experiment with (wine, mead, beer, or something else entirely). This project is a beginning to see how Mississippi-grown grapes can be used for marketable products.
Although it is not easy to do in the Deep South, bunch grape viticulture can be done with the right cultivars and management practices. Developing markets is another important step in the process, and Lazy Magnolia is exploring whether or not grapes can make a marketable product for their business model with the help of Mississippi State University Extension Service.