I never paid much attention to wild grapes until a couple years ago. Growing up in the Minnesota River valley, we often encountered beefy grape vines in the woods that disappeared into the tops of the tallest treees. They were sturdy enough to swing on if you could break them at the bottom. The fruit I tasted on occasion wasn’t very good compared to the green and red grapes from the store, so I wrote them off in my youth. For decades, I didn’t know what I was missing.
There are two native grape species endemic to Minnesota. One, Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), is classified as threatened, and is confined to the extreme southeast corner of the state. The other, Vitis riparia, is anything but threatened. In fact, it can seem to be just about everywhere. It is known somewhat officially as Riverbank grape, which really plays into its Latin name (something like “vine of the bank of the river”). To me, it’s just “wild grape.”
Leaves are large (palm to hand size) and fairly unmistakable as grape-like. Vines will grow along the ground in open places, and quickly ascend just about anything vertical like trees, shrubs, fences, and telephone poles. After several growing seasons, vines will appear shaggy and reach fairly large diameters. A few I’ve seen over the years were so large I couldn’t wrap my hand around them.
Grapes will grow in clusters that will be easy to recognize— if you’ve ever bought grapes from a store. Think bunch. If you’re looking at something that appears the right color and size, but individual fruits hang apart from each other on stems (more berry-like), walk away. That’s probably Virginia creeper, Woodbine, or something else.
Due to the extended drought we’re having, I’m not holding out much hope for the rest of berry and mushroom season here in Minnesota. I was out the other day checking on the condition of plums and black cherries. That prognosis wasn’t good, but there was one unexpected bright spot: the grapevines seem to love this weather.
When it comes to timing, I think of the first couple weeks of September as grape picking time. Truth is, the season is really long. Right now, grapes that appear ripe are still firm and will sooner rupture than be separated from their stems. A couple weeks from now, that will be different. Some people claim they have better flavor after frost treatment (likely more than a month from now), but I’m not that patient.
In the Kitchen
Wild grape jelly is, admittedly, better than the stuff from the store. I say “admittedly” because I’d heard such claims and didn’t believe them— until I made my own. Jelly should be on everybody’s list of things to try when it comes to wild grapes. Seriously.
Straight-up grape juice is also an option. I once ran into an elderly man of the outwardly-cantankerous variety who saw me picking grapes. Perhaps he seemed that way because he felt I was picking “his” grapes. If so, he didn’t come out and say it. Anyway, he claimed to have already made 70 quarts of wild grape juice that season. I couldn’t decide if he was pulling my leg. True or not, that’s unusual dedication to juice.
Whether you want to make jelly or juice, you have to process the grapes similarly. It’s like making chokecherry juice, only lots faster.
Put your grapes in a stock pot and add more than enough water to cover them. Bring to a simmer and mash gently. Remove from the heat when the water becomes murky, dark purple. Cool, strain, and refrigerate overnight.
Many sources omit the extended chilling time. The reason you should do it is because the grapes have lots of tartaric acid, which can form off-tasting crystals in your final product. By most accounts, these crystals will have accumulated at the bottom of the liquid the next day. Then all you need to do is run the juice through cheesecloth or other fine-straining method to remove them. This additional straining also makes for an extra-clear juice, which is a nice touch when making jelly.
There are lots of recipes for making jelly online, so I just pick one that suits the amount of juice I end up with. Ratios of juice to sugar can vary, and some folks don’t use pectin. Some recommend almost twice as much sugar by volume as juice, but I prefer to keep things closer to 1:1. Honestly, it probably doesn’t matter much as long as you’ve made good juice to begin with.