The Food of September: Grapes

With summer coming to an end this month, it’s prime time for the harvest of a popular Arkansas crop:  grapes. They come in endless varieties, colors and sweetness and they’re best sought out at farmers markets across the state.

Arkansas does have an official state grape. It’s the Cynthiana, the oldest North American grape in cultivation today. First identified in 1770, it’s often referred to as the “Cabernet of the Ozarks.” Similar to the Norton grape, the Cynthiana is winter-hardy and highly disease-resistant.  It’s used in deep red wines and is credited with being a great artery de-clogger. Several of our state’s wineries utilize Cynthiana grapes in their wines, particularly Post Familie, Mount Bethel, Chateau Aux Arc and Keel’s Creek
Arkansas is also the oldest grape juice and wine producing state in the southern United States. Two of our wineries, Wiederkehr Wine Cellar and Post Familie Vineyards, started off in 1880 in the Altus region of the state.  September is a great time for a grownup getaway to Arkansas Wine Country, where you can spend a day traveling to five different wineries (four in Altus and one in nearby Paris) and sample prime vintages.
While our state’s wineries grow a good portion of the grapes in this state for wine use, there are also several edible varieties available to just pick up and eat. Dahlem Vineyard in Altus does several varieties of table grapes, including two sorts of grapes sold at this year’s Altus Grape Festival.  Named Mars and Venus, these grapes were delivered and served frozen because of an early table grape crop.  They turned into a surprise hit – cooling off visitors in the 100 degree heat. The Mars varietal is a sturdy and stout grape, while the more delicate and much sweeter Venus variety has more flavor in its peel.
Muscadines are another variety of grape popular in Arkansas. Cultivated since the 16th century in the southeastern portion of the United States, these fat grapes are identified by their thick skin. To eat a muscadine, one usually bites a hole in the skin and sucks out the juice, spitting out the seed. Unless you like the skins like I do.
Muscadines make great jelly, as do grapes in general. There are several jelly and jam manufacturers utilizing Arkansas grapes in their products, such as Little Rock small-market jelly maker Bear Kingdom Vineyard (which grows most of its own grapes and utilizes wine grapes from Post Familie).  House of Webster in Rogers is the largest of the grape and muscadine jelly manufacturers, but you can often find homemade and small-batch muscadine jelly at roadside attractions and such around the state.
Coming up in October, Wiederkehr Wine Cellar celebrates the 49th annual WeinFest at Wiederkehr Village near Altus. The winery’s Swiss heritage is celebrated with food, wine, games and a championship Grape stomp. The event is October 13th. Head here for more information.
Learn more about growing your own grapes with the folks from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, including some special Arkansas varietals, here.

Kat Robinson is the communications manager for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism's tourism division. She is a lifelong Arkansawyer with years of residency in Little Rock, Russellville and Jonesboro.

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