Originally, grapes were grown both in Eastern Europe and in the New World. Columbus brought back species that were then hybridized in Europe. Hybridized species became popular in the US and Australia. Historians believe most grape cultivation began in Greek and Turkish culture, and those brought to other parts of Europe from the New World areas of Mexico and South America were generally wild in origin.
Today, grapes are classified in two ways. They are defined as either table or wine grapes, and they are further separated by whether they are European or American. It is often difficult to tell, because of hybridization, what constitutes an American or European grape. Some fruits have been developed in Europe, but have gained popularity in America. In general, European varieties are classed as having originated from the cultivar Vitis vinifera. American originate from Vitis labrusca.
Grapes cultivated from Vitis labrusca tend to grow well on the East Coast of the US, yet most modern wine and table grapes were developed in Europe, particularly in Spain, Italy and France. Americans tend to prefer table varieties descended from Vitis vinifera, as these European grapes have a nice tight skin. Vitis labrusca have a looser skin that slips off more easily, which makes them ideal for peeling.
The primary wine grapes were classed by region in France. We know them in the US as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Muscat, Merlot and Cabernet. In general, they are seeded, and are not considered good substitutes for table grapes. They constitute most of those used for wines, though, in the US. Concords, of the Vitis labrusca variety, are preferred in juices.
For table grapes, one has over 50 varieties from which to choose. Seedless types tend to be preferred over those with seeds. Several varieties are well known and hold most of the market share.
Of these, Thompsons and Perlettes are the most popular green-skinned grapes. Both are sweet with a tight skin and an oblong shape. Perlettes are recognizable, as they are about 30% bigger than Thompsons. Both make excellent raisins, though Thompsons are the more popular type to use.
For color variety, the seedless Red Flames and Ruby grapes are quite popular. They have a taut flesh and more depth in flavor than the Thompson. Black Monnukas are seedless and have an almost black or dark blue skin when ripe. Their skin is less taut, but still provides a good crunch. They are larger and more oblong than round in shape. Monnukas can often be found in raisin form in natural food stores, and their color is appealing, particularly when combined with white and red varieties.
Some people prefer to add color with the black-fleshed Venus. People praise them for their sweetness, which is likened to the flavors in Muscat. Venus grapes are quite large and are excellent when added to fruit salads or served as is. Because of their size, they are ideal for fruit kabobs.
Less frequently available, but well worth looking for, are the tiny round champagne grapes. These may either have red or green flesh depending upon the variety. They are crunchy and very sweet. Though called champagne, they are not used in making champagne; rather their taste is likened to the finished taste of a good sparkling wine.
If one does not mind seeds, Concords are of course a classic choice. Similar to Monnukas in size, shape and color, they have large seeds that can be easily removed. Muscat grapes, though used in wine, are also ideal for eating. They are also seeded, so serving them should include providing a way for one’s guests to discreetly dispose of the seeds.
For the adventurous palate, wine grapes are an interesting “table” choice. Virtually all wine varieties provide tastes similar to the wines they make, and most are seeded. Most important in choosing these, which may not be readily available, is to make sure they are fully ripe.
With the abundance and variety of grapes, there is always something new to try. Usually, those with the least number of chemical treatments taste better than ones that have been exposed to numerous pesticides. If one is purchasing fruits that have not certified organic, one may wish to serve them peeled, as the skin tends to retain pesticide flavor and can be bitter.