Glass of Vinifera Anyone?
You may think a grape is just a grape, but all are definitely not created equal. When it comes to the glass of wine in your hand, whether red or white, it has most likely been produced from a species of grape called vitis vinifera. Native to the Mediterranean region, these grapes are now grown all over the world.
The first accounts of wine being made from grapes date back thousands of years to the Sumerians. By the time of the ancient Greeks, wine was a common beverage. Thanks to Greek trade all over the Mediterranean, wine soon spread. The rise of the Romans saw grape-growing flourish in many parts of their empire, particularly Spain and Portugal.
Grape production eventually spread outside of Europe in much the same way. Spanish colonists discovered ideal climates in Argentina and Chile for vinifera grapes and in the 17th century it was Spanish missionaries who planted the first vineyards in California. England has never had a climate suitable for grape growing but by the late 19th century, grapes were thriving in several of its colonies including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In general, vinifera grapes prefer a long, dry growing season with consistent moderate temperatures. These conditions, commonly known as a Mediterranean Climate, are found along the latitudes of 40 degrees north and south.
Certain types of vitis vinifera tend to thrive in certain areas. For instance, California and France are known for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Italy for Sangiovese, Australia produces excellent Shiraz, New Zealand has become famous for its Sauvignan Blanc, and Argentina is renowned for its Malbec, just to name a few. The vast majority of vinifera grapes are grown solely for blending purposes to create more complex flavors. Many grapes you may not have heard of, with names like Petit Verdot, are often added in small percentages. Of course winemakers are just as likely to blend well-known varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignan and Merlot, as they pursue their artistry.
And in case you’re wondering, the grapes we purchase in the grocery store are not vitis vinifera. Many are vitis labrusca, a species native to the northern United States. Its varietals include Concord and Niagara. Vitis rotundifolia is a thick-skinned species native to the southern United States. Its most famous variety is the Scuppernong. All of these grapes can be used to make wine but drinker will find the results to be much different –and much sweeter- than the famed wines made from vinifera.