A Tasting on the Sweet Side: Muscadine wines at San Sebastian Winery, St. Augustine, Florida

During my cursory research into Floridian winemaking I was shocked to discover there are
Posted 21st December 2010        

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During my cursory research into Floridian winemaking I was shocked to discover there are no AVAs in the state. Not one. Zilch.

Given that Florida was the first state in which migrant Europeans cultivated grapes (the Spanish, aparently, for sacramental wine) this may seem strange, but the climate of Florida is so hot and humid – borderline tropical – that most grapes simply don’t survive here. They wither on the vine. Or go puffy. Or explode.

Either way, Florida will never rival California (or even Texas) in terms of export or acreage, but consolation for the Floridian wine buff comes in the form of the endemic Vitis rotundifolia grape, or Muscadine to you and I: a dark, thick-skinned fruit that grows along the East Coast of the USA and can withstand the humidity of the sunshine state better than the more well-known grapes of the world.

A taxonomist might be able to tell you something interesting about the chromosomes and what makes this fruit differ from those whose leavings usually grace our glasses, but for my part I can only describe the effects of its produce on the senses; they are numerous and, depending on the form, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Following a brief but comprehensive tour of the San Sebastian winery in beautiful St. Augustine (the smaller of the company’s two locations – the larger being down in Orlando), we assembled around a large table in the gift shop and, led by our host, Bob, began the tasting.

A slightly confusing start to the proceedings came with the tasting of two bottled blends made from imported grapes, presumably for the benefit of Floridians who are keen to buy local, but have more traditional tastes: the white ‘Reserva was a recognisable thing, sharp and acidic (but not too much so) with a refreshing hint of lime. It tasted much like a Californian Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, or perhaps one of the softer French table blends. The red equivalent, called ‘Castillo Red‘ (possibly in honour of the local Castillo de San Marcos, which we had the pleasure of exploring afterwards), was a similarly identifiable beast, being a young, fairly fruity red probably containing a fair amount of Merlot, at a guess. This was made (like the aforementioned) with grapes imported from California, and having tasted plenty of bottles from the golden state only a week before I couldn’t personally see the point in having the grapes shipped across the country before they were bottled, (but then I’m not running a business, am I?) The Castillo was described as the driest wine we’d taste, and given that its tannins and oak were underemphasised and it was fairly fruit-heavy I could only assume that the sweetest would be somewhat sweeter than I was used to.

And boy, were they sweet!

Apparently sweetener is generally always added to muscadine, but whether this is for reasons of necessity or to cater for a market with a sweet tooth, it was never made apparent (and I didn’t at the time think to ask).

Now, I don’t dislike sweet wines, but my tastes definitely tend toward the dry side, and if I do indulge in a sweet Gewurztraminer or Riesling (or bottle of Sainsbury’s own brand ‘medium‘, which is plenty sweet enough for me) I normally do so with a curry or otherwise spicy Thai dish, and only really because that’s what folks recommend for a good flavour pairing.

As such, a few of those that followed were a little too sweet for my tastes. But that wasn’t the greatest concern for me – what I couldn’t get to grips with in the paler of the drinks we tried was the smell.

With the Rosa (i.e., Rosé) and the Vintners White white there was a very strong aroma of what I identified as burning rubber and someone close by thought was ‘motor oil’ – much stronger and less encumbered with any more pleasant smells than in any other wine I can remember tasting. There is sometimes a petrolly smell to some strong reds I’ve tried, but never anything like this.

The taste itself was by no means bad: progressively sweeter – the latter of the above reminding me in a not unpleasant way of the taste of nectar. But it was hard to shake that smell, and if I’m being honest, I really wanted to shake it. The Vinteners Red was less overpoweringly scented: very sweet, again, and curiously lavender-like, although tasting from the same glass did mean that the ghost of the petrol tanker that may possibly have been used to ferment the former grapes lingered, and images of Nazcar pile-ups accompanied my ruminations.

The Cream Sherry tasted convincingly of Sherry, a drink I never taste by choice, (although it did add interest to its flavour with a definite nuttiness, rendering it rather Christmassy), and the Port was rich, raisiny and spicy – certainly my favourite of the bunch and, should anyone ever care to ask me, I’d say it was as far as I’m concerned the best use for the Muscadine grape.

To finish off, the Blanc de Fleur sparkling wine was magnanimously produced from the box in recognition of a birthday among our group, (I wonder how often that happens, or whether it’s a case of choosing the occasion to match the desire to celebrate?) But this poor light sparkling fizz could not but fizzle into indifference in a glass that had just held port, sherry, pudding wine and honeyed petrol, so its subtleties were lost on me.

In conclusion, I still don’t know what to make of the Muscadine grape, and cannot compare the produce of the San Sebastian winery with any other that I’ve tried. Certainly they make interesting dessert wines, and I’d probably have picked up a bottle of the port for home consumption if the exchange rate was still as favourable as it used to be, but the overpowering smell of oil and rubber couldn’t leave me through most of the tasting, and I’ve no idea whether this is something that all drinkers of Muscadine suffer in silence or learn to love.

I know I used to think that most Sauvignon Blanc smelled of cat pee, and I eventually overcame that quibble and learned to enjoy it for what it was; but with this Floridian oddity I’m unlikely to have that opportunity as it’s such a rare sight (so rare I’ve never seen it, in fact) in my domestic wine outlets.

So: an experience I would recommend to anyone, but some wines I wouldn’t personally choose to revisit.

Images by Victoria Keeble.


One Response to “A Tasting on the Sweet Side: Muscadine wines at San Sebastian Winery, St. Augustine, Florida”

  1. […] comprehensive know-how of the modern vintner. Perhaps that’s not fair, but I know from my visit to Florida that they tried and failed there (due tot he sub-tropical climate) and had to make do with the […]

Meet the Author:
Alexander Velky
Alexander grew up on Anglesey, almost as far away from civilization as he’d have liked. He studied English at university and subsequently moved to Prague to teach it to Czech people for just long enough that he could say he’d done that. He then returned to the UK to do an MA in Professional Writing, and later moved to London by accident and worked in the music industry for a while. His interest in wine has been developing throughout. He took the WSET Intermediate exam, for which he was rewarded with a certificate and a pin badge, but he probably won't bother doing any more. He now lives in Pembrokeshire with his wife and daughter. He writes, and drinks, for a living. You can follow him on Twitter if that's how you choose to spend your time. Photograph by Léonie Keeble