Harvesting the Wild Grape

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

The Norse Vikings referred to the east coast of North America as Vinland, with grapes so plentiful they could be smelled from the sea. Such historical abundance is questionable; the description may have been a marketing ploy similar to the misleadingly named Greenland. Yet wild grapes are plentiful throughout the Northeast and they’re ripening now, to the delight of the many animal species that eat them.

Among humans, European grapes seem to get all the attention. Chardonnay, Bordeaux, and the seedless table grapes found in grocery stores are all cultivars of the Mediterranean grape vine Vitis vinifera. The most common wild species in our area are V. labrusca, the fox grape, and V. riparia, the river grape. Both have remained a forest curiosity since European colonization due to their sour taste and low sugar content. Only the Concord grape, a 19th century V. labrusca cultivar used in juice and jelly, has met with commercial success.

Recently, the growing interest in local agriculture has led members of our own species to give wild grapes a second look. If you look in the right places, maybe you too can find grape vines wrapping around deciduous trees and fences not far from your home. Experienced forager Joshua Fecteau often finds them covering low shrubs, chain link fences, and small trees growing on the edges of clearings. Because wild grapes can smother trees, many forest landowners will be glad to grant you permission for picking and cutting.

Aside from investigating disturbed areas, following other residents of the forest can lead to a copious harvest. They are a favorite fall food of fauna ranging from blue jays to black bears, and an important late-season source of nutrients for many creatures. Birdsong is often an indicator of a wealth of grapes: letting birds serve as your homing beacon may make the hunt more fruitful.

Millennia of braving the thin, acidic soil of New England have made wild grapes tolerant of pH levels between 5.5 and 6.0, and their taste reflects this acidic environment. In comparison to the “intensely sweet” store-bought grapes, Fecteau describes fox grapes as “strongly aromatic” and having a “mild sweetness.” Those grapes receiving the most sunlight tend to be sweeter and less acidic than their shaded peers, but expect stiff competition from birds.

If your harvest is not consumed in the field, wild grape juice, jam, or even wine can be made from your colorful bounty, although patience is required. Naturalist Kyle Sherlock watched an entire baseball game while separating pulp from skins for a batch of fox grape wine, which he described as extremely sour. This drawback became an asset, however, when Sherlock transformed his wine into deliciously tart wild grape vinegar.

You can also collect and use grape leaves in cooking, which are said to far surpass their expensive store-bought peers. Collect them in early summer, before the ripening fruits steal the majority of available carbohydrates. 

Wild New England grapes also have potential value for the growing number of Vermont and New Hampshire vineyards. V. riparia especially is of increasing interest to winemakers, as its resistance to frost and disease makes it an excellent candidate for hybridization with the sweeter grapes used traditionally in winemaking. In this process, a shoot from V. vinifera is grafted to the established root system of a V. riparia vine. The resulting hybrid exhibits the sweet, slightly acidic fruits prized for winemaking, while the root system retains the resistance to frost and disease that makes wild grapes ubiquitous even in cold climates. Many commercial hybrids now exist, such as the Frontenac grape developed at the University of Minnesota that can thrive in temperatures as low as -30°F. Perhaps the Sonoma Valley of the 21st century will be right here in New England!

Whether your interest is in wine and grape leaves, or you simply want to partake of the bounty of the forest, would-be grape foragers should heed Robert Frost in his poem “Wild Grapes:”

What are you doing up there in those grapes?
Don't be afraid. A few of them won't hurt you.
I mean, they won't pick you if you don't them.

Robbie Meyers is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College and a freelance writer living in Norwich, VT.

 
Discussion
  1. Mark Johnson → in Illinois
    Sep 26, 2013

    I don’t know where to turn. I’m a first time winemaker, 2013. I started with a purchased kit and 5+ gallons of picked wild grapes (26.8 pounds per the scale). I started the bucket adding about 3 gal spring water and 14 pounds of sugar plus 9 camden tablets per recipe for 6 gal of wine. Also 30 drops of pectic. Started 9/22/13 at 12:00 pm. Hydrometer read 1.12. Added Lavlan wine yeast 24 hrs later. Waited and on 9/24 nothing seemed to be happening. Stirred all every 4-6 hours. I had left the top on this whole time since I thought that was to be done. Not seeing bubbles I thought fermentation wasn’t happening so searched the Internet for reasons. Read I shouldn’t have covered until camden had dissipated. Removed the top and let air-out for 24 hrs. Temperature in my basement is 68.8 degrees so that looks okay. Added a second pkg of yeast yesterday at 10 am and this morning the top is covered with skins/debris for the first time. Don’t see any foaming. I’m not sure what to do next…just wait another day? Should I do another hydrometer reading? Any help? Any ideas?

    Thanks for any guidance…

    Mark

  2. Richard Sutton → in Long Island
    Jun 20, 2015

    I have a wild grape growing on my property. The main stem is as big as my upper arm, and it grows huge quantities of vines every season. It also produces, by mid-May, hundreds and hundreds of clusters of tiny green grapes. Unfortunately, by Mid-June, they have shriveled up and died, tiny brown clusters still hanging attached to the vines. Is there anything I can do to tend/cultivate the vines to get some of these grapes to mature?

  3. Daniel → in Illinois
    Aug 02, 2016

    Richard- try removing half of the vines to give the other half a chance to mature.

  4. Lee → in WI
    Aug 26, 2016

    Richard, sounds like you have a male vine. It produces pollen but will not produce fruit.

  5. Jayne → in ME
    Aug 28, 2016

    I have small bunches of green grapes with one or two starting to purple up. If i pick them, will they continue to ripen. There aren’t a whole lot, so I want to beat the birds! Thanks.

  6. Alex Darc → in MASSACHUSETTS
    Sep 08, 2016

    Richard, shriveled grapes early in the season are usually a sign of Black Rot disease.  http://grapeseek.org/blackrot.htm

  7. Sandy → in Massachussetts
    Sep 12, 2016

    I stumbled on a few giant grape vines a stones throw from my house. I came home with a bag full of grapes and mom and I have already enjoyed a few.  But I washed them really well before we ate them. Gotta watch for ants and spiders and do be cautious of yellow jackets. Yeah, they like those.

  8. Scott → in Dillsburg
    Jul 27, 2017

    We live in central pa.  It is late july and we have many clusters of wild grapes on a vine but they are still small and green and look healthy, certainly not shriveled.  Will the mature into anything edible or are they just a weed?

  9. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Aug 01, 2017

    Give them time, Scott. Around here they’re ripe in late September or early October. Whether they will be edible to you is an open question—they’ll likely be very sour, but many foragers use them to make jam or wine or vinegar. They’ll certainly be edible to animals, though. They’re an important fall food source for the wild set.

  10. Don Jackson → in York, PA
    Sep 18, 2017

    Richard,

    I always had wild grapevines on my property but no grapes. Every year I would cut them down to the ground. Last year I was lazy and didn’t bother on the upper side of my property. So a vine emerged and covered a 15’ Frazier Fir tree. My Frazier Firs have a fungus on them so I sprayed my trees this year with a fungicide. That included this 15’ tree with the grape vine covering it. Surprise - I just picked 2 1/2 gallons of wild grapes from about 8’ down to the ground. Tonight I’ll be climbing a ladder to get the rest because the bunches from 10’ up look even better (more sunlight). I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that a little fungicide may go a long way. Trimming would help as well.

    I also grow grapes, blackberries and a few fruit trees. 4 years ago I started making wines with the excess fruit. I’m really looking forward to see how this batch of wild grape turns out. I’m going to call it Foxy.

  11. Pegeen Webster → in Crystal, MN
    Sep 25, 2017

    I want to take cuttings of a wild grape vine where I work, and try to grow if at my cabin.  I’m wondering, when is “late winter” to take the cuttings?  Is it calendar based, or weather based, or counted back from when I’ll be ready to put them out in the spring?

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