Edible New Orleans Winter 2011 : Page 19

Henry Amato pulls a handful of perfectly round, golden muscadine grapes from a vine—the season’s last. “You ever try a muscadine?” he asks. I have not. A muscadine, it turns out, is a little like the Gushers candies I used to eat as a kid— an explosion of sweet juices. Raising his voice so I can hear him over the grumble of his 4x4, the winemaker instructs me to spit out the grape’s tiny seeds and tough skin. Henry Amato has made fruit and musca-dine wine at his farm in Tangipahoa Parish since 1994, and he’s one of only a handful of commercial winemakers currently operating in the state. Many Southern wines are made from muscadines, a species that is native to the re-gion, growing wild and thriving in the heat and humidity of the South. The few wild va-rieties have been cultivated over time into hundreds of domestic ones and, though a bit of a challenge to eat on their own, mus-cadines were once widely used to make wines and jelly. “Before Prohibition, muscadine wine was the most popular wine in America,” Mac Cazedessus tells me at his vineyard and win-ery near Clinton, in East Feliciana Parish. His vines were mostly bare of foliage and fruit when I stopped by, but they are green and full in late summer when he begins his har-vest. Cazedessus’ organically-grown mus-cadines are featured in nine wine varieties under the label Casa de Sue, an adaptation of his last name. Though his winery is a bit off the beaten path, he also runs a tasting room in Sorrento, La. just off I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge (6473 Hwy. 22, casadesuewines.com, tastings free). Muscadine wine production is similar to that of traditional wine grapes but muscadine wine does not undergo a lengthy aging process like its more common commercial counterparts. “We’re not really interested in any com-plexities that develop over time,” says Devin Barringer, the muscadine winemaker at Feli-ciana Cellars, located in Jackson, La. (1848 Charter St., felicianacellars.com, tastings free), just 20 miles down the highway from Cazedessus’ vineyard. Muscadine wine gen-erally ages only for about two weeks before bottling, compared to a year or more for tra-ditional wine, and doesn’t age once its in the bottle, either. “It’s meant to be consumed early in its life,” Barringer says as we stand on a balcony overlooking the winery’s interior. Though it’s a fairly familiar drink to Southerners, Barringer admits that Feliciana Cellars “fights the perception a little” that muscadine wine isn’t high-quality, or that all muscadine wines are sweet. In fact, Feliciana Cellars makes nine varieties of muscadine wines, including dry and off-dry in addition to semi-sweet and sweet. “It’s something that you need to try and judge it on its own merit. I think some wine culture in the U.S. is too caught up in com-plexity, in the connoisseur-type mentality. But the best indicator is how it tastes when you put it in your mouth,” he says. Barringer also points out that muscadine wine has similar health benefits to traditional wine. He tells me about some food science research that is beginning to show mus-cadines may have a higher concentration of antioxidants than traditional wine grapes. “We’re on the verge of being able to adver-tise that, but it’s still being studied,” he says. Health benefits aside, muscadine and fruit wines are a long-standing tradition in Louisiana, and one that Henry Amato knows well and draws upon in his business. “We wanted to make wine for Louisiana people,” Amato says. “In this area, years ago, everyone had five and ten acre farms, and everybody had a patch of strawberries. And at the end of the year, everybody made their 50 to 100 gallons of wine. It’s not like that any-more. All the small farms are gone.” He and his wife, Jessie, make ten types of wine from the muscadines, blackberries and blueberries they grow themselves, and from Belle Chasse navel oranges, Southern peaches, cranberries, and Ponchatoula straw-berries that they purchase from other farm-ers. Amato sells much of his wine at the Gretna Farmer’s Market on Saturday morn-ings and at the annual Ponchatoula Straw-berry Festival each spring. Amato invites me into his large tasting room (12415 West Black Rd., 985-878-6566, tastings free) and tells me, “I’ve never remembered not making wine.” He was raised making strawberry wine, but the soft-spoken man laughs when I ask if he’s using a family recipe. “No, wine making is not a recipe,” he says. “It’s not a formula. Each year the fruit is different. You’ve got a different sugar level, a different acid level, and you have to check all of that before you actually start making your wine.” Though locals are more likely to think of fruit or muscadine grapes when it comes to Louisiana wine, there is one winery in Louisiana producing traditional wine from bunch grapes. Pontchartrain Vineyards is nestled among the gentle hills and horse farms north of Abita Springs (81250 Old Military Rd., pontchartrainvineyards.com, $5 tastings). Owner John V. Seago, a walk-ing encyclopedia of wine-related knowledge, says that there’s a common misconception that traditional wine-making grapes cannot grow in Louisiana. “Most people assume because they’ve never seen grapes growing in Louisiana, that you can’t do it here for some mysterious rea-son. And they say, ‘We don’t have the right www.edibleneworleans.com 19

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