History of Grapes



The history of grapes as a source of food and drink is a long one, perhaps the longest of any fruit, certainly of any berry.

Old World Grapes

Archeological evidence suggests that the history of grapes in the old world may have begun in the area near the south of the Caspian Sea. From there, grapes have spread all across the globe - first to Europe and the Middle East, and then to North America in the early 1600s.

This species, found in Europe and the near East, are botanically known as 'vitis vinifera'. There are more than 10,000 varieties.

6000 BC The first reference to wine-making in the history of grapes was found on ceramic jars in what is now Georgia, in the remains of a Neolithic village dating back to 6000 b.C. It is likely that wild grapes were used, as we won't see evidence of intentional cultivation for over 2000 years.

5000 BC The next oldest references can be found in Iran, dating back to 5000-5500 b.C. This suggests that winemaking originated in present-day Georgia and then spread south.

3200 BC The first references to the intentional cultivation of grapes are only found from 3,200 b.C. onwards, in the Near East.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics show that by 3000 BC grapes were a popular fruit there, and that winemaking was widely practiced. Almost all the wine was red, with some rare exceptions. It appears that Egyptians primarily made wine for religious use in their temple rituals. They didn't indulge in much social drinking, if any.

1000 BC The Phoenicians appear to have brought domesticated grapevines from Asia to Greece around 1000 BC in the first known immigration in the history of grapes. The Mediterranean climate suited grapes, so they were quickly adopted as a popular fruit and source of wine in that region.

100 AD In Greek and Roman times, grapes were widely known and used for many purposes. At the time more than 90 varieties were known. Wine was very popular, but grapes were also use to eat as a fruit, to make sweetening syrups, and vinegar. Unripened grape juice was used as a vinegar substitute.

The Rhine valley (ancient Gallia, and the modern border between France and Germany) was widely covered with grape plantations as early as 100 A.D.

The Romans developed the beginnings of many of the winemaking techniques we use today. Several provinces began competing with Rome for the wine market.

This led to the development of harvesting techniques, the use of barrels and bottles for fermentation and storage, and a system to identify wines grown in different Roman regions.

327 AD At the end of the 19th century, archaelogists found a bottle of Roman wine in Germany. The bottle dates back to around 327 A.D., and it is topped with what appears to be olive oil, which was commonly used to prevent wine from evaporating.

1500s During medieval times, wine was enjoyed almost exclusively by the wealthier classes. For a time, most European grape production was used for wine for the elite, or for sacramental purposes. Relatively little was used for eating or drinking unfermented.

At this time, the main producers of wine were priests, especially the the Benedictines in France and Germany. White wines were becoming as widespread as red, but they were usually drunk young, watered down, and flavored with spices or honey.

1600s While the Europeans were beginning to settle North America, they brought their grapevines with them.

Spanish settlers brought grapes to New Mexico, planting them in North America in the early 17th century in what was probably a mission. In 1655, the Dutch brought grapes to Cape of Good Hope. The 'vitis capnsis' soon naturalized to become a pretty much a native species.

The first grapes thought to be planted in South Africa were Chenin Blanc and Muscat in the 1650's. On February 2, 1659, the first wine pressing was made from these grapes and the history of wine production in South Africa started.

1700s Sweet Ice Wine was first made in Germany in 1794. It is still made in the traditional way in portions of the Rhine Valley, from grapes that freeze and then thaw while still on the vine.

The first cultivated grapes in California were planted in 1769 by Spanish Franciscan Friars to produce sacramental wine for the California Missions.

The first table grape vineyard in California was developed by William Wolfskill, an early settler in the Los Angeles area.

As more settlers came to California, more and more types of European grapes were introduced for winemaking, raisins and eating fresh.

1800s

The old world vine 'Vitis vinifera' suddenly disappeared from Europe around the 1860s. A North American aphid known as 'phylloxera vastatrix' infested some vineyards in France, and the disease spread across all of Europe like wildfire. Some people noticed by that not all the species were affected. So, they started grafting with the American labrusca cultivar in order to save the remaining species.

In the development of table grapes, the greatest event in the early history of American grapes was the introduction, early in the 1850s, of the northern fox-grape.

In the nineteenth century, the Victorians were very excited about grapes. They experimented on different species in hothouses.

History of Grapes in the New World

South America and North Eastern America are the places of origin for the New World species. Its botanical name is 'vitis rotundifolia'.

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.

As Old world grape varieties were introduced throughout North america,the vitis vinifera cuttings were not able to survive the freezing winters. So, the local species were further cultivated, resulting in the new and more popular Concord grape appeared on the scene of the history of grapes.

In Canada, wine producing vineyards are common in British Columbia and in the Niagara and Pelee regions of Ontario. New terroirs for wine varieties were opened in the late 1990's in Prince Edward County Ontario.

For several decades, North American wine was considered inferior to European varieties, but in a Paris wine-tasting contest in 1976, American wines beat European wines.

Today in the United States, approximately 98 percent of commercially grown table grapes are from California. (California Table Grape Commission).

If you are seriously interested in growing your own grapes, for jams and jellies or to make your own wines, here is a great resource you really should check out!


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