The grapevine was so important to the ancient Romans that they called it vitis, after the Latin word for life. Today, botanists still give the name Vitis to the genus of grapevines. While the wild grapes of North America may not be as well-known as their Mediterranean counterparts, they are still sought by the modern forager for jelly, wine, and juice.
Grapevines, with their peeling bark, maple-like toothed leaves, and climbing tendrils, are familiar to even casual visitors to the woods, but care should still be taken with identification. Grapes are a diverse group with over a dozen species in North America, some native, some introduced, many of which have hybridized with each other. Even within a single species there can be tremendous variation in growth habit, leaf shape, color, and size. Several other vines can be mistaken for grapes. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has similar-looking fruits but can be distinguished by its palmate compound leaves. The poisonous Canada moonseed (Menispermum canadense) has grape-like leaves and fruit, but its leaf margins are not toothed. As always, consult reliable field guides.
Grapes can grow in a wide variety of northeastern habitats, but it makes little sense to look for them in established forests where shading reduces their productivity and much of the fruit is well out of reach in the forest canopy. Instead, most foragers look for grapes on the forest edges that line roads, agricultural fields, or rivers. The optimum time to gather in our region is in late September and early October, but competition with birds and other animals will often prompt one to forage in late summer as the grapes are ripening.
Wild grapes can be eaten right off the vine, and if you find a sweet patch, doing so is one of the great joys of the foraging life. Most wild grapes are too sour to appreciate this way, but even the sourest grapes can be enjoyed with a little work.
If you don’t eat the grapes raw, you will need to juice them.
To do this, gently crush the whole clusters, taking care not to break the bitter seeds; there is no need to remove the fruit from the stems. Then squeeze the pulp through a jelly bag or cheesecloth.
The sour flavor of grapes comes from several acids, the concentrations of which vary from species to species and even vine to vine. Winemakers use various techniques to imbue their products with different balances of these acids in their pursuit of the perfect bouquet. One of these acids, tartaric acid, can cause irritation to the mouth, throat, and skin. For this reason, always wear rubber gloves when juicing wild grapes.
Removing the tartaric acid from wild grape juice is both essential and simple. Place your juice in the refrigerator for one to two days. The tartaric acid will precipitate as a gritty, white sludge on the bottom of the container as it bonds with the naturally occurring potassium in the grapes to form potassium bitartrate (also known as cream of tartar, one of the leavening agents in baking powder). Decant the juice and throw out the tartrate sludge.
The resulting juice is powerful.
Try it mixed with a sweeter juice like apple for one of the finest wild beverages around. Alternatively, the juice can be used as the start of a flavorful grape jelly or a wild grape wine. However you use it, your products will have a lively flavor, just as one would expect from the vine called life.