By Allston McCrady
Photo by Allston McCrady
In August, I stepped out my back door to find my car and driveway splattered with kamikaze cherries. A neighborhood prank? I was miffed. Looking up, I spotted the culprit: muscadine vines clinging to the tree above, heavy with fruit.
Unless you are a fan of terrifically sweet wines, most folks scoff at wines made from the South’s native grapes. But just two weeks prior, I stumbled on a vineyard called Chateau Elan, a stone’s throw from a Georgia highway. There, I tasted an entirely new take on muscadine wine, a drier version labeled Muscadry. Muscadry captures the distinct, complex quality of this hardy grape, but with about one-tenth of the residual sugars of classic muscadine wines. It is closer to an off-dry Riesling, with a mix of apricot and peach notes, hints of grass and caramel, and a unique, musky quality that winemakers call the “gasoline aromatic” (I kid you not).
When Italian winemaker Simone Bergese arrived at Chateau Elan one year ago, he faced a huge challenge. The entire vineyard (25-30 acres) of classic vinifera grapes was infected with Pierce’s disease, a bacterial infection which California winegrowers spent billions to contain. In Georgia, Pierce’s is eventually a death sentence for a vine. So Bergese made a difficult decision. He ripped up all existing vines and planted something native to the region, something that would not require rounds and rounds of pesticides: muscadine.
In Bergese’s opinion, the muscadine grape had been misunderstood, and he saw its potential. Its high acid content is typically balanced with overt sugars, but if he could combat that aggressive acidity by fermenting and aging the wine in oak barrels, those extra sugars would be unnecessary.
The result is promising. Chateau Elan’s tasting room hosts 400-500 people each week, the majority of whom react to Muscadry enthusiastically (there will always be a few who simply don’t like the grape’s musky aromatic). Bergese makes two styles: the pink bottle uses the red Noble muscadine cultivar (just slightly sweeter), the white bottle the Carlos cultivar. He plans to experiment with a champenoise method over the next few years to create a sparkling version.
And that’s worth a toast.