Stalking the Wild Grape

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Found food. As in food you find–right out in nature.  Organic. Healthy. Free even. How good is that? When my daughter announced she had found a large patch of wild grapes, right along the bike path, I was excited. 

Wild grapes on the vine

Wild grapes on the vine

You see, I had discovered the pleasure of wild grapes a few years ago.  Small and tart, wild grapes are great for juice and jelly making.  If you have never seen wild grapes, they aren’t large juicy fruits like backyard concords or supermarket reds.  Tart and tannic, they won’t compete for fresh eating either.  But wild grapes are loaded with antioxidants and, processed correctly, make a delicious juice or homemade jelly.    

Wild Grape Juice Soda

Wild Grape Juice Soda

In Search of the Wild Grape

Wild grapes grow in small clusters of petite berries on long vines, often along the edge of woods.   They use curled tendrils to climb the trees and it can take a bit of hunting to find enough within arm’s reach.  Wild grapes ripen in early to mid fall and the best time for picking is a brief window when the clusters are mostly purple (vs having a lot of still-green fruits) but before the older grapes begin to shrivel and decay.  The last weekend of September was perfect this year in Wisconsin. 

A pruner can help in harvesting wild grapes

A pruner can help in harvesting wild grapes

You need a couple gallons (e.g. ice cream buckets) of clusters to make a reasonable quantity of juice—which is easy if you find a big clump, but challenging if you need to traipse along a lot of country roads.  I don’t mind an extended search on a brilliant fall day, but on a cold one…  A scissors or pruning shears will make harvesting easier.  

As with any wild foraging, you need to make sure you are getting the correct plant.  Take a look at articles like this (and I recommend checking more than one source) for (relatively easy) instructions on how to distinguish wild grapes from the poisonous moonseed plant.   

What to Do with Wild Grapes

As I’ve mentioned, wild grapes are not likely to find fame as a fresh eating fruit.  The problems range from size (teeny) to tartness (pucker up) to a high tartaric acid content that may actually cause stomach and skin irritation (see tips on how to avoid this below). 

Canned wild grape juice

Canned wild grape juice

I have always used my wild grapes for juice.  I make and can a concentrate, then mix it with plain or fizzy water for a beverage that is healthier and tastier than a commercial soft drink.  Other people use wild grapes for jelly and or a homemade sweet wine.  wild-grape-juice-served

How to Work with Wild Grapes

There are a number of different species of wild grapes and some may require fewer precautions than the high tartaric acid species I find here in Wisconsin.  But it won’t hurt to take the extra preparation steps—better safe than sorry!  

Wild grapes on a plate

Wild grapes on a plate

The first step is pressing the grapes.  This can be done right on the stems though I prefer to separate the grapes first. Many people recommend pressing with a glass or your hands rather than a mechanical process which may nick the seeds and produce a bitter flavor (I don’t have a juicer so I have always pressed manually).  If you use your hands, gloves are recommended since some people report painful skin irritation. I am normally careful but my daughter got really into it (literally) and commented on a mild itchiness afterwards (though not as bad as the time she barehanded the world’s hottest poblano peppers).   

Press wild grapes (wearing gloves)

Press wild grapes.  But wear gloves…

After pressing you strain the juicy pulp, ideally through cheesecloth, and let the juice sit in the refrigerator overnight. The tartaric acid will settle on the bottom of your container and you can pour the juice off the top and discard the (seriously unappealing) sludge.  And yes, sludge is an apt description.

Making wild grape "soda"

Making wild grape “soda”

Some people suggest you avoid cooking the grape pulp, again due to the possibility of adding bitterness.  This year I didn’t have any cheesecloth to squeeze out the last of the juice so decided to try an experiment.  After pressing and straining, I covered the remaining skins and seeds with water and simmered them for about 15 minutes.  I then strained this mixture to create additional juice.  I also let this sit overnight to separate and discard the “sludge”.  After sweetening, this “second pressing” was quite tasty, so I may continue this process to increase my yield.  

4.5 from 2 reviews
WIld Grape Juice Concentrate
 
Prep time
Total time
 
Ingredients
  • 2 (or more) gallons of wild grapes, including stems
  • 3-4 cups of sugar
  • 2 cups water
Instructions
  1. Remove grapes from stems and press grapes to extract juice. Strain through a strainer lined with cheesecloth, then squeeze the cheesecloth to release as much juice as possible. Discard the remaining pulp. Let juice sit in your refrigerator overnight until a sludge settles on the bottom. Pour the juice off the top and discard the sludge. You should have about 3-4 cups of juice.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium heat, stir water and sugar together until sugar is dissolved and syrup is hot. Add strained juice and stir to combine. Taste test for sweetness by putting a teaspoon of juice in a glass then adding water. Add sugar as needed. If you plan to can the juice, bring it back to just below boiling.
  3. The resulting juice concentrate can be frozen or canned in a water bath in pint jars processed for 5 minutes, adjusting for altitudes over 1000 ft. For complete canning instructions, see the link below.
  4. To serve, mix 2-3 tablespoons (or to taste) of concentrate with fizzy (or plain) water.

For complete canning instructions, see this National Center for Food Preservation link. 

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10 Comments

  1. I always use wild grapes to supplement homemade Concord wine. Gives it a great dark color and lots of tannin’s. And yes very sour by themselves. I find them easy to spot in fall because the leaves seem to turn yellowish before the rest of the foliage around. They also love to hang around river edges. Really you can find them just about anywhere, you just have to look.

    • What a great tip on blending with the Concords Mark. We aren’t growing any of our own grapes yet but they are definitely in the plans for the future!

  2. Inger- I remember wild grapes from my childhood in Pennsylvania. We never ate them, because we were always afraid they were poisonous. Now I wish I could go back and pick some! Thanks for a great post.

    • Better safe than sorry David! And there’s still time to get some wild grapes into your life (okay maybe not this year…)! I just ate my first shaggy mane mushroom after watching them pop up in the lawn for years. A week ago and I’m still here so I guess I got it right 😉

  3. Sounds delicious. You were so lucky to find a bunch in such a great location!

  4. Wow, I have never seen wild grapes…great idea to make a concentrated juice…and the idea of adding fizzy water sounds delicious!

    • I am making a lot of fruit syrups to mix with the fizzy water–my favorite new beverage! Hope you have a great weekend Juliana!

  5. This is the most fun post ever. Love it. I would take a big bunch and make a rum infusion also!

  6. Pingback: Top Note Tonics, Ginger Jack Cocktail & More - Art of Natural Living

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