There are two basic types of grapes, American and European. Today, both are grown in the United States, but the European grapes are more popular and versatile. Seeded varieties are thought to have better flavor than seedless, but Americans—who tend to eat grapes as a snack rather than as a dessert—seem to prefer the convenience of seedless grapes. The list that follows covers the major (and a few minor) varieties of grapes, both seeded and seedless, grown in this country.
European varieties of grapes
Our familiar table grapes are derived from a single European species, Vitis vinifera. Varieties of vinifera grapes were grown by the ancients, and now are made into the world’s great wines and dried to produce raisins. They have relatively thin skins that adhere closely to their flesh. When seeds are present, they can be slipped out of the pulp quite easily, although some varieties are seedless.
Spanish missionaries likely brought European varieties of grapes with them when they moved north from Mexico and established vineyards in California in the late 18th century.
Today, California produces the majority of European varieties of grapes in the United States. Although a large proportion of the California crop is used for winemaking and raisins, the remainder provides a bountiful supply of fresh fruit for American tables during most of the year. The major varieties are harvested in different seasons, and the period of market availability for some types is extended by imported grapes.
- Black Beauty (Beauty Seedless): These are the only seedless black grapes. They are spicy and sweet, resembling Concords in flavor.
- Calmeria grapes: These pale green, oval grapes are so elongated that they are sometimes called Lady Finger grapes. They have a mildly sweet flavor, comparatively thick skin, and a few small seeds.
- Cardinal grapes: A cross between the Flame Tokay and the Ribier, these large, dark red grapes have a pearly gray finish, a full, fruity flavor, and few seeds.
- Champagne grapes (Black Corinth): These grapes are tiny, purple seedless fruits with a deliciously winy sweetness. They are called champagne grapes because someone thought the cluster of small grapes resembled champagne bubbles. In their dried form, these grapes are called currants. Note: These are not the dried fruit of the currant plant, but a mispronunciation of the grape’s name, Corinth.
- Emperor grapes: These small-seeded red grapes may vary in color from red-violet to deep purple. Their flavor is mild and somewhat cherry-like (they have a lower sugar content than many other table grapes). Thick-skinned Emperors are good shippers and stand up well to consumer handling. They also store well, lengthening their period of availability.
- Exotic grapes: These blue-black grapes are seeded and firm-fleshed, and resemble Ribiers.
- Flame Seedless grapes: Second only to Thompson Seedless in quantity grown, these round, pink to red, seedless grapes are sweet-tart and crunchy.
- Italia grapes (Italia Muscat): This variety has taken the place of the older Muscat varieties, which today are mainly used for making wine. Muscats are large, greenish-gold, seeded grapes with a winy sweetness and fragrance. The Italias have a milder flavor than the older varieties.
- Perlette Seedless grapes: These round, crisp, green grapes have a frosty-white “bloom” on their surface.
- Queen grapes: These large, firm grapes are rusty-red in color and have a mildly sweet flavor.
- Red Globe grapes: These very large red grapes have a crisp texture and large seeds. The flavor is quite delicate.
- Red Malaga grapes: Ranging in color from pinkish-red to purple, these grapes are crisp and mildly sweet. Their rather thick skins make them good shippers.
- Ribier grapes: These large, blue-black grapes, which grow in generous bunches, have tender skins. They are sweeter than the look-alike Exotic and arrive at market later in the summer.
- Ruby Seedless grapes: These deep-red, oval grapes are sweet and juicy.
- Thompson Seedless grapes: These oval, light green grapes are the most popular fresh variety grown in the United States, and also the foremost variety used for processing into raisins.
- Tokay grapes(Flame Tokay):A sweeter version of the Flame Seedless, these are large, elongated, crunchy, orange-red grapes.
American varieties of grapes
Two species native to the United States are Vitis labrusca and Vitis rotundita. Labrusca grapes are the ones that Viking explorer Leif Ericson found growing so abundantly on the East Coast of North America, which resulted in his naming the newfound territory “Vinland.”
Later settlers tried and failed to establish European grapes (for winemaking) in the eastern United States. In the late 18th century, Easterners started to domesticate native varieties, which were obviously well suited to the local climate. Today, labrusca is the primary type of American grape grown.
American varieties are sometimes called slipskin grapes, as their skins separate readily from the flesh, though their seeds are tightly embedded in the pulp. The most familiar American variety is the Concord, followed by the Catawba.
Although they can be grown in many parts of the country, commercial production of American varieties is still concentrated in the East. New York State is the major grower. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arkansas, and the state of Washington also produce some American grapes. Nearly all of the crop is processed into jam, jelly, juice, wine, and other food products. Cream of tartar, an ingredient in some types of baking powder, is made from Concord grapes. A small quantity of these grapes reaches the market as table grapes, but because they do not ship well, they are generally sold locally.
All American grape varieties ripen in the fall and are available only in September and October.
- Catawba grapes: Second to the Concord in popularity, the purplish-red Catawba is named for a river in Maryland, where it was discovered in the 1820s. It is a medium-sized, oval, seeded grape with an intense, sweet flavor. The Catawba is mainly used to make juices and is rarely found in the market as a table grape.
- Concord grapes: This variety originated in the 1840s near the Massachusetts town whose name it bears. A typical labrusca grape, Concords are round, blue-black grapes with a powdery bloom. Their thick skin and heady, sweet aroma surpass their bland-to-sour flavor. They are most commonly used in grape preserves and juice. Grapes sold as “white Concords” are actually Niagaras.
- Delaware grapes: These small, pinkish-red grapes have a more tender skin than other American varieties. They are sweet and juicy.
- Niagara grapes: These large, amber-colored grapes have a grayish bloom. Niagaras may be either round or egg-shaped. They are somewhat coarse-fleshed, and are less sweet than most other American varieties. They are often sold as white Concord grapes and are used to make white grape juice.
- Scuppernong grapes: The first cultivated wine grape in this country was discovered in North Carolina on the banks of the Scuppernong river in the early 16th century. Today the Scuppernong is mostly turned into jams, jellies, juices, and local wines.
- Steuben grapes: These blue-black grapes are similar to the Concord, but have a less winy flavor.
Other grape products
Grape juice: Because of its high sugar content, grape juice has more calories than other fruit juices. An 8-ounce glass has 128 to 155 calories (depending on whether or not it is made from concentrate), compared with 100 calories in grapefruit juice or 110 calories in orange juice.
When buying grape juice—or any fruit juice—check the wording on the label. If it is simply called “grape juice,” it must be 100 percent juice. Grape “drinks,” “beverages,” “punches,” or “blends” usually contain very little fruit juice; they are mainly a mixture of water and sugar, such as corn syrup. These products sometimes cost more than real grape juice. If you find grape juice too sweet, you can thin it with a little apple juice. In any event, it is best to consider grape and other juices (even more so the blends) an occasional indulgence. In the main, stick with fresh, whole grapes.
Grape leaves: Young, tender grape leaves are used as wrappers for rice and other fillings in Greek and Middle-Eastern cooking. The leaves are also used to wrap some French cheeses and to protect small game birds from the intense heat of broiling or grilling. Bottled or canned grape leaves are sold in Greek and Middle-Eastern groceries. If you have grapes growing on your property, you can use your own leaves as long as they are unsprayed. Fresh leaves should be blanched or steamed to soften them; canned leaves, usually packed in brine, should be rinsed to reduce their sodium content. One way to enjoy grape leaves is to fill each one with a spoonful of stuffing made from cooked rice, currants or pine nuts, lemon zest, and dill, then fold the leaves around the filling and place them snugly in a pan so they do not unfold. Poach the wrapped rolls in broth. Serve the rolls at room temperature or chilled.
See also:Raisins or Grapes: Which Are Better?