Fruit of the vines of the Vitis genus; the smooth-skinned juicy greenish white to deep red or purple berry eaten dried or fresh as a fruit or fermented to produce wine. The term also refers to any of numerous woody vines that usually climb by tendrils, produce clustered fruits, and are nearly cosmopolitan in cultivation.
As the process of deriving wine lies beyond the scope of this text, the present entry will focus on the history and use of table grapes.
The source grape vine, the oldest and most celebrated ancestor, is the Vitis vinifera. Indigenous to the area stretching from the southeastern coast of the Black Sea, around the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan, the wild vine is a climbing plant requiring structural support to flourish.
Various cultures, through aesthetic and archaeological means, left indication of the vine's early cultivation. Paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs during the 4th dynasty (circa 2440 BC) portray the growth of grapes. Their size and scale is represented in dramatic, grand style emphasizing their importance and value. Small ones are shown as well, such as the Zante grape, used to produce currants (see also: raisin and sultana). The grape enters Biblical texts from the time of Noah (Genesis 9:20). The Phoenicians, a trading and seafaring people, brought the vine to Greece around 1000 B.C.
The Grape In Antiquity
While the Greeks and Romans cultivated grapes for the production of wine and for eating fresh, a number of lesser-known grape products further establish the historical importance of the fruit.
A sugar syrup was prepared by boiling away must, a fresh, unfermented grape juice. Four important syrups made were sapa, a more concentrated (1/3 of the original) form of defrutum, which is used in savory sauces; passum, derived from raisins, must, and a small amount of wine, was used as a sweetener; and dibs, the grape syrup still made today in Levant and in Turkey (Pekmez).
Verjuice, the juice of unripe grapes and cranapples, is a second important grape product of ancient origin. Until the introduction of inexpensive vinegars, verjuice served as a souring agent in European cooking. Some higher quality vinegars are today derived from grapes.
The cultivation of the grape grew by leaps and bounds during the Roman Empire as its frontiers advanced and its methods of cultivation improved. The vine had spread well beyond the boundaries of the empire, wherever cool, humid winters could be found: Northern India from Persia in the 7th century and China around 100 BC.
The Spread of The Vine.
In Asia, America, and South Africa, young varieties other than vinifera began to emerge; some producing grapes of reasonable edibility. Vikings who were exploring the eastern seaboard of North America found at least one American species, V. labrusca, also known as the fox grape. An alternate variety, also edible, was the V. rotundifolia the muscadine or scuppernong grape of the southeast.
After European colonization of the Americas began, following the Columbus voyages, expeditions of settlers took seeds of the original vinifera across the Atlantic Ocean. While certain patches were successful, in general they failed, due to the cold winters of Massachusetts and Maine. All over New England, settlers were then forced to turn to native species, which they cultivated and improved. The famous black Concord grapes are a variety of V. labrusca.
While settlers were busily cultivating the European grape in suitable American climates, the Dutch applied the grape to South Africa in 1655. Australia, soon after, provided the perfect climate--in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia--for the European grape.
The Aphid Crisis of 1860
By the middle of the 19th-century then, the grape had nearly spread around the globe. 1860 saw a disaster which nearly decimated every grape in Europe; when an aphid Phylloxera castatrix--which attaches to the roots of some native American vines without harm--comes into contact with the vinifera variety, it promptly kills it. The aphid was introduced to France and in a few short years, nearly ravaged all European vineyards.
Leading producers noted that certain varieties of the American grape--some of which were grown as exotics in Europe--were not affected. Vinifera was grafted on to American rootstocks, and thus saved. A few plots of the ungrafted, "pure" variety of Vinifera still exist today in eastern Europe.
Leading producers in the end of the 20th century were: Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, USA, Greece, Portugal, and South Africa. While more than 8000 varieties have been named and described, only 40 or 50 are commercially important. Most of these are used only for wine production. The most important hybrids and varieties of the table grape are the following:
- Alicante. French, black grape found in California..
- Almeria. Medium-large grape, mild, grown in Spain, USA. Useful for export as it maintains its ripeness over long periods of time..
- Beresana. Amber Italian eating grape, almost savory.
- Cardinal. American cross between Tokay and Ribier, very large, ver red fruit with mild flavor.
- Catawba. American hybrid of native fox grape (V. labrusca), cultivated in Kentucky since 1802.
- Chasselas (Golden Chasselas). Yellow French table grape, truly a superior grape. May well be oldest cultivated grape, as it appears in Egyptian tomb paintings at Luxor.
- Concord (V. labrusca hybrid). The principle black-bluish, curiously bright grape of the northeastern USA where it grows easily due to its resistance to cold. The quite large grape has a "foxy", course flavor, and are, for lack of a better grape, often eaten for dessert.
- Delaware. A native American variety (V. aestivalis x vinifera x labrusca). Small, crystal pink color, soft skin, sweet flavor. A table and wine (Japan, Brazil) grape.
- Emperor. Second most widely sold table grape (USA) for its durability in transport, not for its nearly harsh flavor
- Gamay. Black grape from which Beaujolais is made; also possesses a vivid, sweet flavor for the eating.
- Haneport ("honey pot"). The very sweet, meaty Muscat of Alexandria grape grown in S. Africa and often exported. An ancient variety, table or raisin grape.
- Italia. Popular Italian grape of the Muscat variety that is exported widely in Europe; grown in USA as well. Large and white with a thick skin and heavy, sweet flavor.
- Malaga. American-grown red with large pink or red grapes, crisp and lacking in acidity (negative quality). Separately, a large, white Spanish grape similar to Almeria.
- Muscat. A group of varieties, all large, ranging in color from pale yellow, to deep black with thick skins; sweet, aromatic, and "musical" in flavor. Among the best for eating off the vine. Made into "muscatel" raisins and sweet dessert wines (Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise).
- Niagara. (Concord x Casady). Large, pale, yellowish-green grape of native American V. labrusca stock. The principle white American table grape of that type; less popular than V. Vinifera white grapes. A tangy, slightly "foxy" flavor.
- Perlette. A very early white, seedless table grape, firm, crisp, juicy, thick-skinned, with a pleasantly mild flavor. Grown in California.
- Regina. Elongated, amber, sweet, crisp grapes. Used as table grapes in Italy. Very similar to the Greek (Rozaki) and Bulgarian (Bolgar) varieties.
- Ribier. European variety grown in USA which comes on the market very late in winter. Large, round, and purple-black, neutral in flavor, lacking in acidity.
- Thompson Seedless (Kishmish). The sultanina grape is widely grown; leading table grape of USA as it is firm, tender, and sweet without a strong flavor. Used to make sultanas: light-colored, seedless raisins of the highest quality.
- Tokay (Pinot Gris). Grown as a table grape and for making white wine. Called 'flame tokay' in California, it is grown for eating fresh and is second in popularity to Thompson seedless. Large, oval red fruit with firm texture, tough skin, and mild flavor.
- Zinfandel. Reddish-black grape grown in California for eating fresh and for making wine (Zinfandel wine).
Clarke, Oz. Oz Clarke's Encyclopedia of Grapes. New York: Harcourt, 2001.
Rombough, Lon. The Grape Grower. New York: Chelsea, 2002.