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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Grapes: A Brief History

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: August 7, 2013

If asked to name the world’s number one fruit (based on tons produced), most individuals would probably guess banana, orange or apple. While all of the previous are very important, none can rival the amount of grapes produced throughout the world. The varieties of ways in which grapes can be used coupled with the number of countries in grapes can be grown accounts for the fact the world produces about 72 million tons of grapes annually. Late August signals the beginning of grape harvest for many regions of Missouri and is a good time to take a closer look at this ancient fruit.

Grape culture (or viticulture) is probably as old as civilization itself. Archeological evidence suggests humans began growing grapes as early as 6500 B.C. during the Neolithic era. By 4000 B.C., grape growing extended from Transcaucasia to Asia Minor and through the Nile Delta of Egypt. King Hammurabi of Babylon probably enacted the world’s first liquor law when he established rules for wine trade in 1700 B.C.

The Hittites are credited with spreading grape culture westward as they migrated to Crete, Bosporus and Thrace, as early as 3000 B.C. Later, the Greeks and Phoenicians extended grape growing to Carthage, Sicily, southern Italy, Spain and France. Under the influence of the Romans, grape production spread throughout Europe.

At the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, grape culture and wine making primarily were associated with monasteries. Later, the use of wine extended beyond religious rites and became entrenched in culture as a social custom. This increased demand for grapes, and grape culture grew steadily from the 16th to the 20th century.

The three primary uses for grapes are for wine, dried fruit (raisins) and fresh table grapes.

The world produces about 7.2 trillion gallons of wine each year, making it by far the most prevalent use of grapes. This value represents a 35% increase since the mid-20th century; Europe (Italy, France, Spain and Russia) accounts for 80% of total world production. Only about 14% of the wine produced worldwide is exported from its country of origin.

Raisins represent a formidable use of grapes as well. World-wide raisin production averages 800,000 tons per year. Since it takes about four pounds of grapes to produce one pound of raisins, the raisin industry uses about 3.2 million tons of grapes each year.

Fresh (table) grapes account for less than 12% of the world’s total grape production. Since fresh grapes are highly perishable and transportation costs high, fresh grapes are consumed primarily in the country of their production. Europe and North America lead in fresh grape consumption. The average American consumes about eight pounds of fresh grapes each year.

Not all of the grapes consumed worldwide belong to the same species. Grapes belong to the Vitaceae family which contains 11 genera and about 600 different species. The genus Vitus is the only food bearing genus in the Vitaceae family and contains about 60 different species. These species are grouped into one of four different categories.

Native Grapes. When the first Europeans visited North America they found grapes growing so abundantly that they named the new land “vineland”. Grape species native to North America include V. labrusca, V. aestivalis, V. riparia, V.berlandieri. Native species are known for their cold hardiness and disease resistance. Unfortunately, their fruits have lower sugar content, higher acid content (a poor combination for making good wine) and are “slip skin”. The latter term refers to the tendency of the skin to separate from the remainder of the berry when eaten fresh. ‘Concord’, a cultivar with V. labrusca parentage, arguably is the most popular American-derived grape. Fanciers of ‘Norton’ (‘Cynthiana’) could make a formidable argument for their cultivar.

Early settlers often described native grapes as having an “animal den” aroma. Hence, throughout the history of our nation native grapes often were referred to as “fox grapes”. Science has revealed that V. labrusca and cultivars derived from that native species contain methyl anthranilate, an earthy, musky smelling compound that (to most) imparts a disagreeable after-taste. Interestingly, science also demonstrated recently that methyl anthranilate is contained by secretions of the musk glands of foxes and dogs. Evidently, our fore-father had a very acute sense of smell.

European Grapes. The European grape (V. vinifera) is the species most often associated with the word “grape” and accounts for the majority of the world’s wine production. The chemical composition of its fruits is superior to that of native grapes for winemaking, but European grape cultivars lack cold hardiness and are susceptible to a number of troublesome diseases. Columbus is credited with having introduced European grape to the Americas but the colonists’ first attempts to grow it resulted in failure due to its sensitivity to cold temperatures. Today, production of V. vinifera in the United States is limited to regions with mild winters, long growing seasons and summers that are fairly dry with low relative humidity.

French-American Hybrids. The quest to produce grapes with superior wine-making qualities coupled with cold hardiness and disease resistance led to the development of French-American hybrids. Most arose by crossing species of European grape with various species of North American grape. These crosses gave rise to very productive hybrids having adequate cold hardiness to be produced in the Midwest along with the ability to tolerate many troublesome diseases. Indeed, it was French-American cultivars such as ‘Chambourcin’, ‘Vidal Blanc’, ‘Seyval Blanc’, ‘Chardonel’ and ‘Vignoles’ that led to the recent revitalization of Missouri’s wine industry. In the development of these hybrids, V. labrusca purposefully was avoided as a parent to prevent it from passing it “foxy” flavor to its progeny.

Muscadine Grapes. Muscadine grapes (V.rotundifolia) are noted for their small berries that have a bold, musky flavor. They are nearly immune to insects and diseases but require a growing season of 200 days or more. Muscadine grape production is limited to states such as Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina, all of which have mild winters.

Grapes are fairly robust in their growth habit and have the ability to tolerate a wide range of soils, including those that are shallow and rocky. Detailed information on the cultural requirements of grapes in Missouri can be found in MU Extension publications G6085 (Home Fruit Production: Grape Culture) and G6090 (Home Fruit Production: Grape Training Systems).

Grape trivia:

  • Botanically, grapes are considered to be a berry.
  • The oldest grapevine in America is a 400 year old Muscadine vine in North Carolina.
  • The grape industry contributes about $125 billion annually to the U.S. economy.
  • The average American consumes eight pounds of grapes each year.
  • About 25 percent of the grapes eaten in the U.S. are imported from Chile.
  • The best selling grape in the U.S. is ‘Thompson Seedless’ which also is the source of golden raisins.
  • Grapes are a good source of vitamins C and K; they also contain protein, carbohydrates, dietary fiber and minerals.
  • Resveratrol, a substance found in grapes, has been linked to reduced colon cancer.

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REVISED: July 1, 2013