When I was a kid, grapes always seemed way out of my league—totems of opulence only to be hand-fed to goddesses and satyrs, on some faraway land, in some faraway time. It took me an embarrassing number of years to recognize the vines, draped like velvet ropes with their pendulous clusters of fruit, twining through every thicket of my own hometown. The shabby setting just didn’t fit the lurid scene I’d set in my mind, but there they were, dangling over the ditch, and there were no satyrs to be seen, but there I was, hungry.
Once I was absolutely sure they were grapes, I snuck back to the ditch, pinched off a whole cluster, and admired its heft and cloying perfume. I took a single grape, closed my eyes, and squeezed it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, braced for some impeccable Grecian flood, but what I got was grape juice. I’d expected to be whisked away to some gold-filigreed place, but I only got as far as my last peanut butter and jelly. I’d had grapes all wrong. I thought they were all the same, and that they all had something to do with wine and lustiness, but after a little reading, I learned that there are all kinds of grapes in all kinds of places, and most of them happen to be right at home, hanging around the hedgerows of North America, just like me.
They’re actually so abundant here that early Norse explorers named the whole place “Vinland.” You may think I was disappointed to find they were so provincial and that I wouldn’t be getting my Greek vacation, but I was actually overjoyed to take them as my own totem—the flavor of a feral American childhood.
Those first grapes I discovered were Concord grapes, and I’ve since sampled from at least six of the species native to the northeast, with many more across the country that I still have yet to taste. This large number of species can seem daunting to approach from an identification standpoint. If you’re in North America, you’re most likely to encounter the river grape (Vitis riparia) but be comforted by knowing that all grapes (except Muscadine) share a handful of fundamental characteristics that distinguish them from other species, so, from a foraging perspective, you don’t necessarily have to know which grape it is to know that it is, for sure, a grape.
Look for grapes climbing along field edges, riverbanks, sunny openings in the forest, roadsides, trail sides, and any other sunny edge habitat with something for the grape to cling to. Grapes are actually not “vines,” botanically speaking; they’re “lianas” which are woody, climbing plants that do not support their own weight.
So, you’ll never find a wild grape standing alone in an opening, they’re always grappling onto things like trees, fences, or power poles. However, they always hold onto their supports with their tendrils rather than wrapping around like other common vining plants like the notorious Asiatic bittersweet.
The bark of a mature grape will be brown, shaggy, and peeling—this is a key feature in telling a grape apart from plants that share similar habitat that you do not want to eat, notably, Virginia-creeper, Canada moonseed, Amur Peppervine, and American pokeweed.
Another key to confirming that you have a grape is the leaves. They’ll be alternate, simple, broadly heart-shaped, lobed, (usually three large lobes which range from shallow to deep, but the leaf is never fully divided into separate leaflets), with a toothed edge and palmate veins.
The next thing to look for in a grape is the forked tendrils. The tendrils emerge from the stem, opposite a leaf, green and bifurcated, reaching for something to grab onto, as this is how the plant supports itself. Once the tendril finds support, it will wrap around it in a corkscrew coil, then harden and turn brown like the mature bark.
The last important distinguishing feature is the fruit itself, and the seeds within. Grapes hang heavy beneath the leaves in oblong to conical clusters (just like in the greek myths) though depending on pollination, predation, and your timing, the clusters range from full to sparse and sometimes there will just be a single grape here and there.
When squished between the fingers, a grape will have one to four pear-shaped seeds, whereas its most cunning lookalike, Canada moonseed, has a single, hard seed, shaped like a flattened quarter-moon.
Eating a grape might seem self-explanatory, but if you’ve only had grocery store, seedless, table grape—this is not that. Eating a wild grape fresh off the vine may surprise you. The skin is thick and nutritious, there are seeds, full of tartaric acid which can irritate some people’s tongues and bowels, and there is flavor—lots of flavor. They can be bold, tart, musky, sour, or they can taste just like Welch’s grape jelly, but better.
Depending on the species, they might be fantastic out of hand, or they might be more suited for wine or brandy or raisins, but all of them make top-shelf jelly. By “jelly,” I don’t exclusively mean grape juice boiled with sugar and pectin, though that is a tried and true crowd-pleaser. I mean the broader category of grapes, combined with some form of sweetener, cooked down until it’s somewhere on the spectrum of liquid between juice and jam. This ranges from simple, sweet sauces to drizzle over peanut butter ice cream to something savory, sticky, or even spicy to slather on your grouse, ducks, and geese. You can make syrup, reduction, glaze, mop-sauce, hot-sauce, pan-sauce, add a little vinegar for an oxymel or a gastrique, use the scraps from making juice to ferment your own vinegar, or press the pulp into fruit leather.
The flavor potential of wild grapes covers as much ground as their native range does, but almost anything you’ll want to do with them begins with juice, which is, essentially, mashed grapes, covered with water, heated, strained, and optionally sweetened. While the fruit is the star of the show, let us not forget what makes all of that fruit possible—the leaves and tendrils—they are a delight in the kitchen, too.
The leaves are best known for dolmas or stuffed grape leaves, where they’re fermented or pickled to preserve, then stuffed with rice, herbs, pine nuts, and sometimes ground lamb, beef, or in my case, venison. Leaves for dolmas should be harvested when they’ve reached full size but they’re still tender and you can poke a thumb through them easily (mid-summer).
Later in the season, all the way until a frost, grape leaves are placed in jars on top of pickled vegetables because they’re high in tannins that infuse the brine and keep the pickles crisp. The tendrils are affectionately called “sweet tarts of the woods” by kids across the country. For such a slender thing, they pack a really sour punch. They’re a lively and elegant addition to salads, soups, and sandwiches.