The primary cultivated grape species, Vitis vinifera, is one of around 60 Vitis species. Species in this genus are native to the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, with a few species reaching the tropics. In North America, there are around two dozen species. A number of species occur in Asia, but just one is native to Europe, Vitis vinifera. Vitis vinifera is by far the most economically important Vitis species and accounts for most commercial grape plantings, not just for wine. Nearly three quarters of the world's commercial grape production is devoted to wine grapes, around a quarter to table grapes, and much smaller amounts to dried grapes (raisins) and non-alcoholic grape juice.
Vitis vinifera is a vigorous climber, growing to a height of 16 to 20 m if left unpruned. It climbs by means of forked tendrils produced intermittently at two out of three vegetative nodes. Its leaves are 9 to 28 cm wide, long-stalked, palmately lobed, and coarsely toothed. The petals of the small greenish flowers are joined at the tips. The fruits are (technically) berries, with or without seeds.
Wild V. vinifera is found from the Atlantic to the western Himalayas. This is one of the oldest fruit crops in the Old World. Seeds have been found at a late Neolithic site (4500 BCE) in Cyprus, at early Bronze Age sites at Jericho (around 3200 BCE), and at other ancient sites in the Levant. Viticulture, including wine production, occurred in Egypt at least as early as 2400 BCE, as recorded in the hieroglyphics of the time. It is uncertain where this grape was first domesticated—possibly in Armenia or along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The Romans brought the crop to temperate European countries, including Britain. It was brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492; Portugese and Spanish explorers brought it to North and South America. It was later brought to the Atlantic Coast of North America by British, French, and Dutch settlers (some hybridization likely occurred between this species and the North American natives V. rotundifolia [Muscadine Grape] and V. labrusca.)
Grapes contain a large amount of sugar (15 to 25%), with roughly equal amounts of glucose and fructose and only a trace of sucrose. Vitamin C content is low (around 3 mg/100g). The fruits contain tartaric acid and malic acid in similar concentrations (around 0.5 g/100g). The red and black grape pigments are anthocyanins.
Grapes are generally classified as either black (including red and purple) or white (including yellow and green). They may also be categorized by use as either table or dessert grapes (firm flesh and low acidity), wine grapes (soft flesh and high acidity), or dried grapes (firm flesh, high sugar, and moderate to low acidity). The number of cultivars of wine grape is in the thousands.
Note that the basic difference between red wine and white wine is that the skins are included in the former. Thus, only dark-skinned grapes can produce red wine, but dark-skinned grapes can also be used to produce white wines since the skin is removed.
In the mid-1800s the European wine industry was devastated by the appearance of a North American grape pest, the Grape Phylloxera, to which V. vinifera was extremely susceptible. Fortunately, grafting grapevines onto resistant American rootstocks turned out to be a workable solution and the European wine industry was saved.
- Vaughan, J.G. and C.A. Geissler. 1997. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants (revised and updated edition). Oxford University Press, New York.
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