Wednesday, September 3, 2014

September's Harvest: Grapes in Arkansas

Grapes. They come in endless varieties, colors and sweetness.  They can be used for wines, in jams and jellies and even breads and cakes.  Their juice is sweet, and they’re best sought out at farmers markets across Arkansas.  In September, grapes of all sorts are harvested, both in backyard gardens and in the River Valley vineyards of Arkansas Wine Country.

You may not know this, but Arkansas has 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 wineries, Wiederkehr Wine Cellar and Post Familie Vineyards, started off in 1880 in the Altus region of the state (check out Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley for the history of winemaking in Altus).  Today, these wineries along with Mount Bethel and Chateaux Aux Arc offer tours and tastings.

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 offers several varieties of table grapes, including Mars and Venus.  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.

So, what can you do with grapes?  A lot of things.  You can make a grape pie.  You can make jam.

You can even use the leaves and make dolmas...

Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves)

20-30 grape leaves (depending on size and how much filling you want to put in)
1 pound ground lamb or beef
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups white rice
2 teaspoons allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 small can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
1 small onion, minced (1 cup)
1 teaspoon dried garlic
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter

Blanche grape leaves -- place in boiling, salted water for 10-15 minutes until pliant, then immediately remove to ice water bath.

In a bowl, mix together rice, lamb, allspice, pepper, tomato sauce, onion and garlic until the combination forms a paste.  Lay grape leaf flat on surface.  Place a dollop (I suggest 1-2 tablespoons) of meat mixture just above the stem.  First roll up the stem part onto the meat, then fold the left and right sides in.  Roll up the rest of the grape leaf around the tube that you've formed.  Repeat with remaining grape leaves.

Place in pot and pour in water until just the tops are above the surface.  Dot the dolmas with butter.  Cover tightly and cook on high for one to two hours... or for one hour after pot begins to boil.  Check back to make sure there's enough water for the bottom of the pan.  Remove from heat, remove dolmas from water with tongs and set aside to drain.  Give them about 10 minutes and serve them hot.

To rewarm dolmas, place on paper plate under a wet paper towel and microwave 45 seconds to one minute.

Coming up in October, Wiederkehr Wine Cellar celebrates the 51st 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 11th. Head here for more information.

Click here to learn more about how Post Familie Vineyards goes about making their marvelous wine.

Learn more about growing your own grapes with the folks from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, including some special Arkansas varietals, here.

And keep up with this important piece of advice, the next time you get a chance to participate in a competition grape stomp:

Here's a graphic if you want to share this post:

1 comment:

  1. Mmmm, dolmas! I haven't eaten those in forever - thanks for sharing the recipe! Living in the River Valley, I pop over to the wineries quite a bit. Post Familie has my favorite wines (and tasting room) but Wiederkehr has a great sangria. And a fantastic, drool-worthy restaurant! :-)


Be kind.