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The Origin and History of Grapes

Rutuja Jathar Mar 11, 2020
The first question to hit your mind after sipping a glass of wine is that where did grapes come from? So, sit back and relax while we walk through the gardens of this 'Fruit of God'! This Story takes you on a tour of the origin and history of grapes.

Did You Know?

There are more than 200 wineries in Napa Valley, California, making it the area having the highest concentration of wineries in the world.
Grapes are said to be the oldest cultivated fruit. They are juicy, sweet, or sour, and round or semi-oblong fruits that come in seven colors, depending on the variety that is grown. The most popular use of grapes, all over the world, is in making wines . They are actually 'berries' that have a semi-soild, translucent flesh inside them. They may or may not have any seeds.
The botanical name of grapes is vitaceae. They are natives of Western Asia and Central Europe. These regions are known as the motherlands of grapes. From there, grapes have made a long journey to reach all across the globe.
The cultivation of grapes began 6000-8000 years ago on a domestic level in Europe. They are said to have originated at the time of Jesus Christ. We can say this because of its many references that have been made in the Bible as "the fruit of wine". They were found in Egyptian tombs and in the tombs of pre-Christ era as well. This proves the popularity of this fruit. Let us see how grapes became popular all over the world.

History of Grapes

The old world grapes, found in Europe and the near East, are botanically known as 'vitis vinifera'. This species has more than 10,000 varieties. South America and North Eastern America are the places of origin for other species known as the New World species. Its botanical name is 'vitis rotundifolia'. The superior old world species is native to the area across the southeast coast of the Black Sea (near the south of the Caspian Sea) to Afghanistan and is still found in these regions.
The fox grapes, botanically named as 'vitis labrusca', were found by the Vikings who explored the eastern seaside of Northern America long before Columbus. Another species is muscadine grapes, found in the southeastern region of North America because of which, this region was named as the New World "Vinland".
After British colonization in America, grape cultivation got a real boost. But in the freezing winters of the North America, the vitis vinifera cuttings could not survive. So, the indigenous species were improved upon and cultivated again. This resulted in a new and more popular version called Concord grapes.
The Phoenicians took grapevines from Asia to Greece around 1000 BCE. The Mediterranean climate suited grapes, so it started spreading throughout the Mediterranean region. The European grapes were brought to America by the Spanish and the Portuguese. In 1655, the Dutch took grapes along with them to Cape of Good Hope, where the 'vitis capensis' soon became a native species. Gradually, grapes became a popular crop in Australia and South America too.
Despite its popularity across the globe, the 'Vitis vinifera' suddenly disappeared from Europe around the 1860s. An aphid known as 'phylloxera vastatrix' had infested some vineyards in France. The disease spread across all of Europe like wildfire.
It is normally a harmless aphid present on some indigenous American grapevines, but once it gets into the root system of this plant, it degenerates. Fortunately, it was noticed by some people that not all the species were affected. So, they started grafting in order to save the remaining species.
Wild grapes were present in the Caucasus region in the Stone Age itself. This was the time when man learned fermentation and began to turn grapes into wine. It is a fact that the Egyptians were the first to make wine. But they made it only for the religious purposes and for their temple rituals. They didn't indulge in social drinking.
It was the Greeks and the Romans who started growing grapes for the production of other things, mainly sugar substitutes, because sugar was virtually unknown to them. They prepared different kinds of syrups like sapa, defrutum, passum, etc. These syrups were of different concentrations and were used to add taste in various dishes.
Grape syrups are still prepared in Turkey and Levant regions. Verjuice was another product made out of unripened grapes, which was mainly used as a substitute to vinegar.
In 1700, the Spanish introduced grape cultivation to California. Since then many different species have been cultivated there. As a result, California produces nearly 90% of total crop in America. Grapes also show a significant existence in the eastern parts of Canada and in British Columbia.
In the 19th century, the Victorians were very excited about grapes. They experimented on different species in hothouses. At the same time, the grape spa or 'uvarium' was introduced in France. These were best used for slimming and medicinal purposes.
Basically, grapes are very nutritious. The grapevine is a climbing arbor, which requires a strong support for its growth. They grow in clusters ranging from 6-300. They can be crimson, black, dark blue, pale yellow, purple, green, or pink in color. They contain natural sugar and dietary fiber along with potassium and iron.
They taste sour when unripe because of the malic acid they contain. As the grapes ripen, the malic acid content reduces and they taste sweet. They work as an astringent, anti-inflammatory antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic agent, anti-tumor agent, etc. They improve vascular activity and protect the liver.
There are more than a thousand varieties out of which, only around 50 have the commercial significance. Some of them are Alicante, Barsana, Alphonse Lavallee, Calmeria, Cardinal, Catawba, Chasselas/Golden Chasselas, Concord, Delaware, Emperor, Hanepoot (Honeypot), Italia, Kishmish, Malaga, Niagara, Ribier, and many more.
Grapes have important medicinal as well as commercial significance. So, the next time when you buy grapes or drink wine, just remember those who passionately cultivated this plant.