Grapes can grow in almost every type of climate,
and while they do particularly well in regions such as the Mediterranean
(where they have long been established), they are now cultivated
on six continents. They are served as a fresh fruit, preserved
or canned in jellies and jams, dried into raisins, and crushed
for making juice or wine.
Grapes are not notable for their nutrient
content, the table grapes that we eat fresh have only low to
moderate amounts of vitamins and minerals. But some varieties
are good sources of vitamin C. Their juiciness and natural sweetness,
combined with a low calorie count, make them an excellent snack
and dessert food.
The grape is one of the oldest cultivated
fruits: Fossils indicate that the cultivation, or at least the
consumption, of grapes goes back to early times, perhaps to
the Neolithic era. Hieroglyphics show that Egyptians were involved
in grape and wine production, and the early Romans were known
to have developed new varieties. And, of course, the grape is
mentioned in the Old Testament as the "fruit of the vine."
Today, although modern equipment is employed
in certain aspects of grape growing, most viticulture is still
done by hand. Grapes grow on woody vines that are not raised
from seeds, but are propagated from cuttings or grafted onto
existing rootstocks. The vines must be staked or trellised as
they grow, to support the heavy bunches of fruit. Leaves and
shoots are pruned from the vines and, depending on the variety,
the flower clusters or the berries themselves must be thinned
by hand to improve the quality of the fruit. Grapes develop
sugar as they ripen, but will become no sweeter once picked,
so timing the harvest is of the utmost importance. And to ensure
that they reach the consumer in full, handsome clusters, table
grapes are harvested by hand. Grapes intended for processing
can be removed from the vines with mechanical pickers.
Grapes are thin-skinned and easily damaged. They should be displayed
no more than two bunches deep, and under refrigeration. The
bunches may be wrapped in tissue paper, or enclosed in perforated
plastic bags. Loose bunches are easiest to evaluate, but the
wrapped grapes are better protected from damage caused by customer
Grapes are not picked and shipped until ripe,
so unripe grapes are not usually a problem for the consumer.
You can, however, use colour as a guide to the sweetest fruit.
Green grapes should tend toward a translucent yellow-green rather
than an opaque grass green; all fruit on a bunch of red grapes
should be predominantly crimson; and blue grapes should be darkly
hued, almost black. Once they have been picked, grapes will
not ripen further: If you spot a bunch with many underdeveloped,
very green fruits, leave it in the shop.
A bunch of grapes in the market should look
as inviting as those in a still-life painting: plump fruit with
a silvery white "bloom," tightly attached to moist,
flexible stems. The powdery bloom, more visible on dark-colored
grapes than on pale ones, is an important sign of freshness;
it fades with time and handling. Avoid wrinkled, sticky, or
discolored grapes on withered, brown, limp, or brittle stems.
Before storing grapes at home, remove any spoiled fruit. Place
unwashed grapes in a plastic bag and store them in the refrigerator.
They should keep for about a week.
Wash grapes under cold water just before serving and remove
any damaged fruit. Leave the bunch whole, or divide it into
smaller branches for serving. (This is easily done with a pair