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
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
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
Robbie Meyers is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College and a
freelance writer living in Norwich, Vt. The illustration for this
column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is
assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by
the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable