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Chteau Elan vineyards await muscadine harvest
Thick skin is native grapes' 'secret weapon' to survive climate
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Executive Winemaker Simone Bergese of Château Élan Winery in Braselton talks about the muscadine crop used in the production of several varieties of wine at Château Élan on Friday. Since joining the Braselton winery in 2013, Bergese's wines have won more than 50 awards at wine competitions. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Put a muscadine in your mouth.

Sink your teeth into the fruit, and there’s a distinctive pop. That’s the skin bursting. The sweet pulp and juice inside is protected by a bronze or purple hull. And that, says winemaker Simone Bergese, is the “secret weapon” of this native grape.

“Many people don’t know it, but you can eat the skin,” said Bergese, plucking a marble-sized muscadine from the vineyards outside Château Elan Winery. “It has seven times the antioxidants of a blueberry. Also, because the skin so thick, it makes the grape resistant to fungi and parasites.”

As executive winemaker at Château Elan for three years now, Bergese is the man who first decided to grow muscadines on the property in place of vineyards that produced grapes used in the production of merlot and chardonnay.

As the annual muscadine harvest draws near, Bergese said the current crop is projected to produce more than 80 tons of grapes — that’s 11,000 gallons of wine, or 5,000 cases. Seventy-percent of the products are sold on the premises, and 30 percent is sold to retailers.

And, business is booming. Bergese said sales have increased 600 percent in the three years Château Elan has sold wine produced from its muscadine vineyards.

“Muscadines are our focus,” he said. “It is from Georgia, and we are a farm winery. This is what we do.”

Native in states throughout the southeastern United States, muscadines are well adapted to the warm and humid climate. Muscadine is the umbrella term for both the bronze-colored grape (often called scuppernongs) as well as the reddish-purple type.

Bergese said he wanted to cultivate muscadines rather than those grape species often grown on the West Coast because muscadine vines “know how to deal with the rain here and the diseases found in this region. It’s the perfect grape to grow in an area like this, because it is where the muscadine naturally grows.”

Added Bergese: “That’s why you put your money in varieties that are meant to be here. You don’t want to go against mother nature. You start your plan by listening and looking at what’s around you, and then you put your efforts into making that possible. You make the smart choice first, and then everything else will be easier.”

Despite that, challenges do remain.

“You’re under the sky,” Bergese said. “You have to play it day by day. You have to hope for the perfect season but also be watchful, whether it’s heavy rainfall or a late frost. These are problems that can compromise your production.”

The health of the leaves on the vine is as important as that of the fruit itself.

“You want to have healthy leaves,” he said. “The leaves are the sugar maker. The leaves translocate the sugar to the berry. You want to have the canopy in good shape, so the berry can ask for sugar and get sugar.”

Once the muscadines reach peak growth, the next challenge is the harvest, which will take place in September at Château Elan.

The plant is very different from that of the classic grapevine, namely in the way the fruit grows.

“You don’t cut the cluster,” he said. “You pick the berry like you would pick a plumb. Even the harvest is very different. With the traditional harvest of grapevines all over the world, the fruit is well exposed and free of leaves. Very, very easy. Muscadines are a challenge, because all the berries are inside the canopy.”

He said Château Elan has a specialized harvesting tractor used for the purpose.

The fermentation process — when it changes from juice to wine — occurs in a fairly short time period for muscadine wine.

“I may crush it one month, and then I’ll be bottling it three months later,” he said. “I prefer to have at least four months before I bottle it though, so that it can rest and stabilize.”

Over this brief aging period, he explained, the wine starts out as “a solution of thousands of components. Over those several months, there is an order that forms out of the mess. All the components bind together.”

The end result, according to longtime customer Tonya Isabel of Atlanta, is “some of the best wine I’ve had.”

Isabel said she also enjoys the variety offered at the Braselton winery.

“They have super sweet and super dry,” she said. “I have a brig group of friends with diverse tastes, so there’s something to suit everyone.”

Bergese said the common misconception is that all muscadine wine is “always sweet.”

But, he said, “it’s only sweet if you make it sweet. It’s not a given.”

After three years specializing in the native grape, Bergese hopes to continue to see the new business direction flourish for the winery.

“It was an easy choice to make,” he said. “You grow what grows best, and then you make the best possible wine you can out of it.”

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