Muscadine grapes (or scuppernongs as they are sometimes called) are native to Florida and were first used for wine-making by the French Huguenots and early Spanish settlers nearly 100 years before wine was made in California. They can grow as big as golf balls and ripen individually rather than in bunches over a period of a few weeks in late August and into September. The grapes are grown at vineyards around Florida where one can visit for free tasting and a tour.
The Chautauqua Winery chose its name because DeFuniak Springs was home to the permanent Winter Assembly of the Chautauqua Assembly from Chautauqua County, New York from 1885 to 1928. Many turn of the century homes and the Chautauqua “Hall of Brotherhood” still stand, gracing the shores of a perfectly round lake that is the centre of the city. The 40-acre vineyard was planted in 1979 and is located 12 miles north of DeFuniak Springs. The varieties of grapes grown by Chautauqua, Carlos (white) and Nobel (red) are improved varieties selected and propagated from native muscadine grapes. A mechanical picker is used to harvest the grapes in the cool morning hours and the grapes are then delivered to the winery for crushing, usually within a couple of hours of picking. This cool picking and rapid processing is essential to capturing the quality and flavour of the grapes.
The winery was constructed in 1989 and boasts 70,000 gallons of temperature controlled stainless steel cooperage as well as over 1,980 gallons of barrels for oak ageing. The current wine press was custom made for Chautauqua by the Scharfenberger Company of Germany. It is the largest press of its kind east of the Rocky Mountains. The press gently extracts the juice from 30 tons of fresh grapes, or 35 tons of fermented reds in a single load. After the crushing and pressing the white grape juice is quickly chilled. When the juice is clarified cultured wine yeast is added and the fermentation begins. White wines are generally fermented at very cool temperatures, usually around 50 – 55 degrees to capture aroma and flavour. Red grapes are crushed into fermentation tanks while select wine yeast is added. The grapes ferment “on the skins” for several days to extract the flavour and the colour from the skin of the grape. When ready, the free run fermenting juice is drained and the skin and pulp is pressed. Red wines usually ferment at 70 degrees. Both the red and white wines ferment until all the sugar is converted to alcohol and then the fermentation is complete. The wines are then allowed to settle and any blending is done at this stage. Grapes harvested in the fall are usually ready for bottling in the following spring.
The retail store at Chautauqua is open for free tasting and tours daily from 9am – 5pm. Chautauqua is located at the intersection of Interstate 10 (exit 85) and Hwy 331 at DeFuniak Springs, Florida.
Chautauqua Vineyards has a sister winery, Emerald Cost Wine Cellars in Destin Florida.
The Dakotah Winery (Dakotah means friend in the Lokota Indian Language) is a family winery established in 1985. The 12-acre vineyard boasts over 30 varieties of muscadine grape vines which are tended by Baby Doll sheep and Canada geese wandering freely, pruning the vines and mowing the grass. there is a comfortable tasting room, and walking among the grounds viewing grapes, sheep, geese, wood ducks and koi fish is positively encouraged. Dakotah is located at 14635 NW Hwy 19, Chiefland. It is open Monday to Saturday, and is just 10 miles from Manatee Springs State Park.
Both of these vineyards are easily reached if you have hired a car, but remember not to drink and drive – Florida is a zero tolerance state!!