No one knows for certain how many types of grapes there. Over 10,000 distinct varieties have been identified – and more are being developed on a regular basis. They are cultivated commercially in dozens of countries and grow wild on every continent except Antarctica. In the United States, they are cultivated and/or grow wild in all 50 states, Puerto Rice, and the District of Columbia. Grapes, literally, are everywhere.
A grape is actually an edible berry that grows (usually in bunches) on woody vines of the Vitis genus of the Vitaceae family of flowering plants. In most cases, all of the grape – skin, flesh, and seeds – can be eaten, and the leaves of some vines are also edible. Depending on the specific variety of grapes can be green, purple, red, and even black.
Historically, grapes probably originated in the Middle or Near East. The first evidence of human cultivation dates back over 8,000 years, while the first dedicated commercial winery (which produced wine from grapes) is believed to have operated in Shiraz (part of the modern nation of Iran) around 2,000 BC, although wine was almost certainly produced for individual consumption prior to this. Grapes (and wine) were an essential commodity in the development of early trade between cultures.
Today, over 70 million tons of grapes are commercially cultivated throughout the world, making it the fourth most widely grown fruit after melons, bananas and apples. China leads the world in the production of grapes, followed by the United States, Italy, France and Spain. About 70% of all commercially cultivated grapes are used in the wine-making industry while the other 30% are consumed as fresh fruit; used in producing jams, jellies and juices; and dried to make raisins, currants and sultanas.
Grapes (and wine) are believed to provide numerous health benefits when consumed responsibly and in proportion. Grapes are an excellent source of vitamins C and K, calcium, phosphorous, and potassium. Regular consumption of wine with meals is believed by many experts to help with digestion. It should be noted that grapes can be dangerous to some household pets; for example, eating grapes can cause acute renal failure in dogs, particularly small breeds.
Types of grapes are categorized in a number of different ways including red or green (or white); wine (drinking) or table (eating); seed or seedless, and several more scientific distinctions. The wine or table distinction is probably the most widely used, but can sometimes be quite confusing as some ‘table’ grapes are used to make wine, while some ‘wine’ grapes are widely consumed fresh.
So, what are some of the most widely cultivated and consumed grapes today?
Known almost exclusively as the Thompson Seedless grape in the United States and Canada, the Sultana is one of the most widely commercially cultivated grapes in the world. Usually designated a type of table grape, the Sultana most likely originated in the Middle East and was traded throughout the Ottoman Empire – who introduced it to Western Europe – for hundreds of years. Horticulturist William Thompson (for whom the Thompson Seedless is named) first brought the Sultana to California in the 1870s.
The Sultana is a medium size, a seedless pale green grape with a sweet flavor and a relatively firm, almost clear, flesh. It is considered a ‘3-way’ grape because along with its use as a snack food and ingredient in some cooking and baking applications, it is also used to make wine (most common varieties of California Chablis and Turkish Sultaniye wines) as well as to produce raisins; over 95% of the raisins produced in the United States are made from Sultana grapes.
The Sultana grape vine is a quite hardy and adaptable plant that grows best in warmer climates. Today, Sultanas are widely cultivated in the US and parts of Canada, Turkey, parts of China, Chili, Western Europe and Australia. Sultana vines are also popular with home growers due to their high yield of grapes and relatively low maintenance.
Considered by some to be the quintessential ‘American grape’, the Concord grape was developed in the mid-1800s by Concord, Massachusetts farmer Ephraim Bull, who was searching for a grape that would thrive in the harsh New England climate and survive the often extremely cold winters. Today, Concord grapes are predominately commercially cultivated throughout the Northern and Central parts of the United States and Lower Canada, particularly in New York, Michigan and Washington State. Over 400,000 tons of Concord grapes are produced in the US annually.
Concord grapes will usually have a dark blue or purple skin (which is usually quite loose and easy to remove), a sweet and slightly tart greenish, translucent flesh, and fairly large seeds. Considered to be a table grape (although some wines – often Kosher – are produced from it), Concord grapes are widely used in the production of jams and jellies, and in making non-alcoholic juices. They are also very popular as a snacking grape, used in making carbonated drinks and candies, and are sometimes used in making pie fillings or sorbets. While several cultivars of seedless Concord grapes have been developed, the vast majority that you will find at your local market will have seeds.
First developed in Japan in the mid-1930s (although not commercially marketed until after the end of the Second World War) the Kyoho is one of the largest grapes you are likely to run across. Considered by some experts to be the most widely grown grape in the world today, the Kyoho is commercially cultivated in its native Japan, China (where it accounts for almost 50% of that nation’s grape production), Chili and California in the US.
Considered to be a specialty grape outside of Asia until fairly recently, Kyohos will sometimes reach the size of a small plum and are routinely over an inch in diameter. A table grape, the Kyoho will have a deep purple to black skin when ripe, a greenish / clear flesh, and quite large seeds. The flesh is very sweet, and has almost twice the natural sugar content of most table grapes, while both the skin and seeds are quite bitter and not usually consumed. Often peeled and served as a dessert in Asian cuisines, Kyoho grapes are also used as toppings for some baked desserts and ice creams, used for making juices and jams, and as an ingredient in some Japanese cocktails.
Believed to have originated in France in the mid-17th century, the Cabernet Sauvignon is currently one of the most widely cultivated red wine grapes in the world. A particularly hardy and adaptable grape, the Cabernet Sauvignon is currently grown throughout the world and is able to thrive in varying climactic conditions. Major producers include France and the rest of Western Europe, the United States and Canada, Chili, Argentina, Australia and South Africa.
The grape has a very thick deep purple skin, and this color is retained throughout the flesh. Rarely used as a table grape, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are mostly used to produce the wines of the same name. Known for their subtly fruity, sweet flavor, Cabernet Sauvignons are among the most popular red wines in the world and varieties are produced by every wine producing nation. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are also often mixed with other grapes to produce other red wine varieties.
Among the most popular and widely cultivated white wine grapes, the Chardonnay probably originated in France in the 15th or 16th century, most likely the result of cross-pollination between several varieties of grapes introduced to the area by soldiers returning from the Crusades in the Middle East. Widely grown in most wine producing countries today, major producers include France, the United States (particularly California and New York) Italy, South Africa and Australia. A green grape with a thin skin and almost clear flesh, it has a high acidity and a sweetish flavor with hints of apple and pear. The Chardonnay grape is used in the production of the wine variety of the same name as well as Chablis, White Burgundy, Franciacorta, some Champagnes and other sparkling wines. Due to its high acidity, it is almost never served as a table grape.
Developed at Cornell University in California and released to the market in 1989, the Crimson Seedless is probably the red grape you will most often find in the produce section of your local market, particularly in the late fall and early winter. Very widely cultivated throughout California, the Crimson Seedless is a durable grape that ships well, and has a fairly long shelf life (a large part of its rapid rise in popularity with growers). A table grape not (yet) used in wine production, the thick skin is a crimson red while the flesh is translucent and quite firm, with a tartly sweet flavor. This grape is most often eaten on its own, and sometimes used in making homemade jams and jellies. The vine is quite adaptable, particularly in moderate and warmer climates, and is becoming quite popular with home growers in those areas.
Possibly the most popular grape most of us have never heard of, the Airen grape is a native of Spain and has been used to produce wine in that country since the mid-15th century. Currently one of the most widely cultivated wine grapes in the world, the true Airen is still mostly grown in Spain and Portugal as well as in France and other parts of Europe. Rarely used as a table grape, Airen grapes are small with green skin and almost clear flesh. They are used to produce numerous varieties of white wines, as well as Spanish brandies.
Usually called Champagne grapes in the United States and Canada, the Black Corinth is a table grape (and not used for making wine or champagne) native to Greece, where it has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. Usually growing to about the size of a pea, the Black Corinth is the smallest variety of seedless grape in the world. It has dark red to black skin and a greenish flesh that is quite juicy, sweet and slightly tart. Often eaten on their own, the Black Corinth is also used in pastry fillings and baked goods, and as a garnish.
Named for the town of Delaware, Ohio where it was developed in the late 1840s, the Delaware was originally bred to be a wine grape but quickly morphed into a table grape due to both its delightful flavor and its lack of value for producing wine. More popular today in Japan and South Korea than its nation of origin, the Delaware is a relatively small, usually oval grape with a thin pale red skin, juicy translucent green flesh, and few seeds. They have a sweet mild flavor and are normally eaten on their own or served cold with savory dishes. In Japan they are one of the highest priced grapes, and are often given as gifts to particularly valued friends and family members.
One of the most expensive grapes in the world, the French Mosaic probably dates back to the 12th century and is native (not surprisingly) to southwestern France. A specialty table grape, the French Mosaic has a skin that ranges from light green to a yellow gold, often flecked with blue or purple. The flesh is a translucent green and is very sweet with a fruity, honey-like taste. Mostly grown in France and consumed throughout Western Europe, the French Mosaic is usually eaten on its own, or used as a topping for desserts.
One of the newer members of the grape family, the Moon Drop was developed through a partnership between the International Fruit Genetics Company and The Grapery of Bakersfield, California. Released to the public in 2004, the Moon Drop is a very elongated table grape with a dark purple, almost black skin and green translucent flesh. The Moon Drop is a very sweet and juicy grape that is so crisp that it can usually be snapped in two. Exclusively cultivated in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the Moon Drop has a fairly short growing period, and is usually only available in markets for about a month in the late summer; however, this grape stands up well to freezing, and stores quite well. Usually eaten on their own, this grape is also sometimes used in cooking and baking, and in fruit medleys.