Perspectives Online

Ancient vine that boosts modern-day health gets new lease on life at Duplin vineyard

Photo by Art Latham

An ancient admonition warns not to pour new wine into old wineskins. But there's no warning about providing new wine-related products for capsules.

Several generations of North Carolinians-turned-vintners intend to do just that - incorporate fruit from what is reportedly North America's oldest grapevine into their company's most popular secondary product: nutraceuticals, specifically, antioxidants found in grapes.

In fact, age-wise, scuppernong vine cuttings from Roanoke Island that Duplin Winery's owners and others recently planted in one of their vineyards might be as old as Sir Walter Raleigh's futile efforts to found an English colony. Island lore has it that the Mother Vineyard's trunk was already two feet thick when discovered by an expedition associated with the "Lost Colony" in the 1580s.

In May, the Fussell family, who own the 600 acres near Rose Hill in which 80 farmers also own shares, planted about 60 rooted cuttings donated by former state Sen. Fountain Odom from the ancient "mother vine" (above, at left), which apparently has flourished for centuries on Roanoke Island. The wine-promoting Brotherhood of the Knights of the Vine, of which Odom is a member, also led the second annual "Blessing of the Vine" ceremony near a recent planting of 35 acres of cross-pollinating Carlos, the hardiest and most antioxidant-filled muscadine.

Why bother to use cuttings from a musty old vine?

Says David Fussell, winery co-owner, for one thing, there's the historical significance.

"My research from the historical documents in the Manteo Library shows it was probably planted by Indians," he says. "We have evidence that they had enough agricultural knowledge to produce hybrids. I can document the original white grape back to the 1700s.

"And the Mother Vine muscadine is an albino; it's a rarity," Fussell says. "We wanted to plant a heritage stock in case anything ever happened to the original vine."

It's also delicate, Fussell notes. While most cuttings have a 95 percent survival rates, previous Mother Vine cuttings survive at a 10 percent rate.

"We think it's so old, its DNA is worn out and it won't propagate," he says.

Today's Mother Vine, on private property not far from state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight's home, is much reduced from the half-acre it reportedly once covered but still produces grapes. The vine and others nearby supplied the Mother Vineyard Winery in Manteo until its 1954 closing.

How are the drip-irrigated former island vines thriving in the coastal plains' sandy loams?

"Pretty well; some better than others," said Duplin Winery's co-owner David Fussell Jr. in early August, when crews already were training the Mother Vineyard's vines left and right along a five-foot high wire.

Antioxidant content has yet to be determined for the still-young Mother Vine rootings, however.

"In nutraceuticals," says Fussell Jr., "each year the active resveratrol compound count varies from one grape variety to another. Research shows that more-stressed vines produce more antioxidants. That stress can be from fungals, heat or aridity, and the stresses vary from location to location."

Whatever the Mother Vine's antioxidant-producing potential, if nothing else, he says, "Our hope is that in four years, we'll get some good ol' muscadines for wine."

- Art Latham