After years of failed attempts to grow European varieties, producers are now turning to native Muscadin grapes and other fruits to make bottles that tell the age-old story of Florida wines.
photo courtesy of Lakeridge Winery
Some say that the Spaniards who colonized what is now St. Augustine on the northeast coast became the first winemakers of modern America in 1565. According to other sources, pirate captain John Hawkins documented French Huguenots making wine at the mouth of the St. Johns River at Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, in 1564.
It is the oldest testimony to viticulture in the New World. But archaeologist anthropologist Crystal Dozier published discoveries in 2020 in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences that suggest the possibility of older viticulture by the inhabitants of central Texas.
Despite an early start, Florida winemakers have struggled for centuries to grow European vitis vinifera grapes in their unpredictable climate. Only later did Florida adopt its native fruit, Nutmeg.
Support for the wine industry in Florida
In 1923, the non-profit Florida Grape Growers Association (FGGA) was formed to promote research on grapes suitable for growing conditions in the state.
Later, in 1978, the state legislature passed the Florida Wine Policy Act. He founded the Center for Viticulture and Small Fruit Research at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), whose mission is to conduct basic and applied research and provide services that promote a viable wine industry in Florida.
The large frosts that occurred in the winters of 1835, 1894, and 2010 served as a warning for crop diversification.
Grapes are a logical alternative to cash crops because of the risk of frost damage to citrus, says Dr. Violeta Tzolova, professor and director of the FAMU Viticulture and Allotment Center.
Winemakers from around the world visit FAMU for workshops, hands-on research and collaborative projects to further explore the grapes and climate.
In 2012, the state legislature passed the Florida Wine Policy Act and created the Florida Farmer’s Wine Program. To be a Florida Certified Agricultural Wine, 60% of the wine produced must be made from agricultural products grown in Florida.
The language has allowed winemakers to produce wine from a variety of local produce such as lime, mango and avocado.
But Nutmeg remains the king of Florida wines, according to Allen Cooley, winemaker, gardener, cleaner, lawn mower and handyman at Summer Wine Crush in Fort Pierce. He praised WeBeJammin’ Muscadine as the most popular wine on the label.
Fruity and friendly Muscadine
In 2020, more than 300 different varieties of Muscadine were grown or bred for commercial use. These varieties are distinguished by their sugar content, acidity, tannin and polyphenol content, skin colour and taste.
Muscadine is used to produce medium to full-bodied white, red and rosé wines that range from dry to sweet. Nutmeg is best served fresh, Tsolova said.
Our wine is the stereotype of Muscadine, that sweet, welcoming taste of the South, like something you would do in your garden, says Cooley. It’s a fertile future. That’s easy. Very friendly. There are no dark and gloomy secrets hidden in the closet and coming out through the glass. It is what it is.
You can even find a Muscadine Port style dessert.
However, Florida Nutmeg is not known for its ability to age.
Muscadine wines should be consumed within three years of bottling to benefit from their fresh, fruity character, said Jeanne Burgess, vice president/director of San Sebastian Winery and Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards. There is no real aging with these wines. These vineyards are known for their southern reds and sun-kissed wines, both made from local blends of Muscadine.
Photo courtesy of Summercrush Winery
Growing conditions and sustainability
Unlike other parts of the country, Florida has no American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) or defined agricultural viticultural areas.
Most grapes are grown and harvested in northern Florida, with a few small vineyards in southern to central Florida.
It’s a deep southern grape, Cooley says. And the vines grow as far south as the Keys, but bear no fruit. The fruit stops on the south side of Lake Okeechobee.
Unlike Grenache and other thin-skinned European grapes, Muscadine has a thicker skin that protects against mold and fungal diseases that are common in Florida.
The advantage of using native varieties over non-native hybrids is the low use of fungicides and insecticides. Nutmeg is resistant to disease and pests in warm climates, so it requires much less spraying than non-native hybrids.
Pierce’s disease is a soil problem that would affect non-native vines through leafhoppers.
So you need to think about this: It’s hot in Florida. I can grow something here that also grows in the Mediterranean. That’s not the case, says George Cowie, winemaker at Chautauqua Vineyards and Winery. Even if you try to grow it in a sterile pot, it will eventually get Pierce’s disease.
As people focus more and more on organic production and where their food comes from, this seems to run counter to what Covey calls the battle against Mother Nature.
Nutmeg, like other agricultural products, needs a rest period. And the climate south of Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the United States, does not provide enough temperature variation to promote fruiting.
Women in Moscow need cold hours to know that they have gone into hibernation, that it is no longer time to grow up, says Cooley. I love hitting the reset button on a computer where they know…. Okay, that’s our easy one.
FAMU’s winemaking program is developing a digital database to help small wineries make wine. Tzolova hopes it will be a tool for vineyards and wineries to analyze their growing conditions and make recommendations on the best grape varieties and processes for success.
The program also offers workshops, awareness activities and on-site training for public wineries and their staff.
If you do anything with a grape, pick it, take it to the winery, press it, ferment it, you’ll never improve the quality, Cowie says. They’re just trying to maintain and direct or shape that quality. This is one of the great advantages of growing our own grapes. We travel with him from the ground to the bottle.
photo courtesy of Lakeridge Winery
Wine experience in Florida
If there’s one thing Florida knows, it’s entertainment. The cellars offer free wine tastings and tours, as well as wine tasting and even art classes.
But when the FGGA approached Rollins College to establish a wine route, researchers determined it was impractical because Florida producers tend to be small and geographically distant.
However, they recommended that wineries focus on entertainment, restaurants and lodging to create a Florida experience.
The Schnebly Redland Winery in Homestead has taken on the entertainment aspect.
We’re called Disney for Adults. We have an area full of waterfalls, ponds with koi to feed, where kids can run and meet other kids while the adults can sit and play, says owner Peter Schnebley. There is a tasting room that we built with coral rock from the Florida Keys.
Summer Crush also offers entertainment.
We have an acre of land just for events and to relax with a glass of wine, says Cooley. We have chairs everywhere. We have a swing by the pond. We have a dock and a covered pavilion with plenty of seating. In the weekends we play live music. We also organize art exhibitions and car shows.
Florida is a tourist destination, but Cooley said when people travel, they want to taste the flavors of the region they are visiting. They’re coming to Fort Pierce to taste Fort Pierce wine…. This is the great Florida experience.
For some wineries, this is ancient history. The San Sebastian vineyard is located in the heart of Saint-Augustin. Known as the oldest city in the country.
During the tour, learn about the history of wine in the New World and the winemaking process at Lakeridge Vineyards, a sister winery in San Sebastian. Lakeridge supplies all wines to both wineries, with the exception of San Sebastian port.
Florida Wine Tender
Muscadine grapes are often dismissed as uncultivated and unbalanced. But these wines have gained an audience thanks to the craze for roses and the development of small cellars.
We’re very proud of what we do, Cowie says. We think it shows who we are. We practice value-added agriculture that is sustainable and pays tribute to the local grapes.
For Cooley, it’s the individuality of each vineyard.
You have an idea of the family, the people who make the wine and the region where it exists, he says. Wine appreciation is no longer considered an elitist club. I dare say we can find wine for everyone. And for some, it’s muscadine wine.