What's that wild vine on tree? Are those grapes?! Wild grapes are closely related to table grapes and easy to identify for beginning foragers. In this post I'll tell you everything you need to know about identifying, harvesting, and cooking with all their edible parts.
Wild grapes are the first wild fruit I ever picked, tasted, and really enjoyed cooking with. I first read about my local riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) that grow in the Midwest in the book The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer.
Wild Grape Vine Identification
This post focuses on Vitis riparia-the most common wild grape in North America. Vitis aestivalis, the summer grape, I see occasionally but is not as common. There's many other plants in the grape family you might find, like the fox grape and Oregon grape. Any edible wild grape can be used as I describe here.
The plants appear as spreading, woody vines with heart-shaped, lobed leaves. They climb trees and other plants to photosynthesize. Once you know them, you'll be able to spot them at a distance from anywhere.
Key ID Points
- The tough leaves have toothed edges with raised veins on the underside.
- Very young leaves are light yellow-green.
- Mature leaves are darker green. Each vine has small, young tendrils at the edge.
- Leaves can vary drastically in size with some varieties.
- The bark peels off in strips on the branches of older grape vines.
Wild Grape Look Alikes
There's a few look alikes beginners should be aware of. The two most common I see are Canada moonseed and Virginia creeper. False grape (Ampelopsis sp.) is also a look alike but I don't see it often, and it's harmless if consumed on accident.
Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense)
Canada moonseed is also a vine, and could be mistaken for wild grapes at a distance. This is the only, real poisonous wild grape look alike I know of.
Canada Moonseed vs Wild Grape
Here's a few key points on how to separate them from grapes:
- Lacks teeth on the leaf margins
- Is often noticeably paler green color, especially when young.
- The stems are thinner and more delicate than grape vines.
- Canada moonseed vines spiral around their support, while grapes do not.
- The fruit contains a single crescent-shaped seed. Grapes have round seeds.
- The fruit isn't nearly as bountiful as grapes and doesn't grow in tight clusters.
Virginia Creeper / Woodbine
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a common, aggressive growing vine. It's the most common wild grape look alike I get messages about. The plant has palmately compound leaves made up of five serrated leaflets.
Virginia creeper fruit doesn't grow in clusters like grapes. An easy way to separate it from grape plants is the berries fruit on red stems. The fruit tastes bad, but is harmless.
Wild grapes grow just about anywhere. I see them creeping up yards and fences, climbing trees, and around the edges of forests. As the name implies (river grape) they also love to grow along rivers and streams.
My grandmother has a wild grape vine that has grown up her trellises on the side of their deck, and their friends come every year to pick the grapes and make wild grape wine.
When to Harvest Wild Grapes
Grape harvest season is generally around mid-late August, but my harvest plan begins much earlier. If you're out foraging during the growing season, it's easy to see where the grapes will be fruiting heavy. Make a note of spots you see during the year and come back when they're ready.
When the grapes are ripe and deep purple (preferably without any unripe green grapes), cut off whole clusters with a scissors and put them in a box or other container.
I never bother to harvest grapes after a frost, as some recommend as, by the time the frosts come, our Midwest grapes will be dried out.
How to Make Wild Grape Juice
Once I bring the grapes home, I try to process them into juice quickly so they don't dry out in the fridge. Here's what I do:
Take the grapes, stems and all, making sure they're clean and free of grit (taste a few to make sure and wash if you need/want) and put them in a large pot. Next, I mash the grapes up with a potato masher, mixing it around here and there to make sure I'm getting grapes from the bottom.
When the grapes are mashed up and juicy, I add some water, just enough to make sure that the grapes are completely covered by an inch or so of juice. The reason for the water is that wild grape juice is very thick, and a little extra liquid will make processing much easier-it will not dilute the strong flavor of your wild grape juice.
After the grapes are mashed up and I've added the water, I put the pot on the stove and allow it to get hot enough to steam. Don't bring the pot to a boil, you just want to get it warm as it makes the juice relax and will help it go through a strainer, which will give you the highest yield possible.
I carefully dump the grape juice and skins into a colander in a large bowl, allow it to drain, then I remove the leftover skins and stems, allow them to cool until I can handle them, then wring out the juice.
Typically I use cheesecloth to wring out the juice, but you can do it by hand if you have to. This can be a messy process, and you'll see in the video at the end of this post that I do it in a garage.
From here I strain the thick juice one more time through a fine strainer. The finished grape juice can be frozen, or processed into things like jelly or wild grape reduction, etc. You can use raw grape juice pressed from the fruit, but you'll get a lot less juice, and it's very strong.
Safety Note: Tartaric Acid
Wild grape juice isn't something to drink as-is, since it's very tart and thick. I can't drink the juice raw at all, as my tongue is sensitive to it, and I know others that share my sensitivity.
The most important thing to know is the juice contains tartaric acid and calcium oxalate crystals that can cause loose bowels when consumed.
Thankfully it's easy to remove the oxalate and tartaric acid as they settle to the bottom of the container after cooking and juicing. Let the juice settle overnight, then pour off the grape juice, discarding any sediment at the bottom.
What to Make with Wild Grapes
There's lots of things you can do with your grape juice, as well as the edible grape leaves. Here's a few examples.
Homemade Grape Vinegar
There's still goodness left in those wild grape stems, skins and pits, and while you could pour some water over them, mix them up, and strain it to get a weak juice.
I prefer to use the leftover mash to make homemade vinegar that I use instead of red wine vinegar. It's fantastic. See the full recipe with proportions for fruit scrap vinegar here.
A Red Wine Substitute
The finished juice is perfect for wine, jams and jellies, but there's lots of other things you can do with it too. I use wild grape juice for all purpose cooking in recipes that call for red wine.
I also make a reduction from it you can use similarly to saba or balsamic vinegar reduction-a sort of wild grape molasses inspired by a traditional fruit juice reduction called pekmez from Turkey (typically made with mulberries).
Stuffed Grape Leaves
Wild grape leaves are essentially the same grape leaves sold in many stores, but it did take me a couple years and dating a Greek woman to figure it out.
Grape leaves should be harvested while you're checking on grapes growing throughout the season. Once the grapes are ready, a lot of the leaves will be past-prime. I can collect hundreds of leaves from a single vine or two in an hour if I'm working quickly.
Fermented grape leaves are edible and fantastic for their most traditional use: stuffing. Since they're tough, tannic and sour, you're not going to be making a salad out of them, although I've had some preparations where the leaves are pickled or fermented and then cut into pieces and used in dishes.
Fermented grape leaves are traditionally used for stuffing (dolma, dolmathes, dolmades, etc) and it's hard to find a better way to enjoy the leaves.
If you've ever had commercially pickled grape leaves, they can be very strong on the vinegar, and I know plenty of people that don't care for them. Foraged grape leaves you pick yourself though, are a blank canvas for whatever flavor you like. See my recipe for fermented grape leaves.
These are small, but fun if you have some grape vines growing in the house or around the backyard. The young, tender tendrils/tips of grape vines are nice and tart, and add a great taste to salads. Try them!
Wild Grape Jelly
Foraged grape jelly is one of the best you'll ever have. It's the grown up version of what you put on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but with a flavor beyond comparison of the watered-down jelly in stores. It's easy to make, and I often don't even use pectin as the seeds are naturally high in it.
Wild Grape Recipes
How to Process and Juice Wild Grapes.
- Large stock pot (stainless steel)
- Potato masher
- Fine mesh strainer
- Very large mixing bowl
- Wild grapes, at least 4-5 pounds, preferably more.
- Water, enough to cover the mashed grapes by an inch or two.
- Harvest ripe wild grapes. I like to use a scissors to remove the whole clusters to make sure they don't get bruised or smashed during transport.
- Inspect the grapes and eat one of two to see if they have any grit, mine are often so clean I don't bother to wash them, but this can vary depending on where you harvest. Grapes on the edge of a working field might be very dirty.
- Put the grapes into a pot, stems and all, then mash them up until juice nearly comes to the top with a potato masher or another blunt object.
- When the grapes are well mashed, add some water to cover them by about an inch.
- Cover the pot and put it on a burner, then warm it until the pot is steaming. Do not allow it to boil.
- Working in a place that's easy to clean, like a garage or outside, put a large colander into an even larger bowl then carefully pour the grape juice and stems into the colander. Allow the juice to drain out, then remove the wild grape mash and allow to cool until you can handle it.
- Wring out the excess grape juice from the warm mash. Reserve the mashed grapes to make wild grape vinegar (optional). Strain the juice through a fine mesh strainer, then portion into containers and freeze, or use to make jams, jellies, wine, grape molasses, etc.
Racking off the tartaric acid
- Before using wild grape juice, allow the tartaric acid to settle overnight in a fridge in a clear container. Pour off the juice and discard the tartaric acid sludge at the bottom.
Making vinegar with the leftover skins and seeds
- Save the leftover skins and stems to make wild grape vinegar (refer to my recipe for fruit scrap vinegar)