Economically speaking, grapes are one of most important fruit species grown around the world. Have they always been so popular?

The short answer is yes.

According to archeological evidence, grapes have been enjoyed by humans for pretty much the whole of human existence. There are records of people using grapes to create fermented beverages in China as early as 7000 BCE. Evidence in the form of chemical residue inside of pots has been found in Iran from equally as long ago.

A painting from the tomb of Userhêt portrays Egyptians harvesting grapes. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest cultivation of domesticated grapes is recorded as being only slightly later than that – well, “slightly later” in the grand scheme of things, at least:  approximately 6000 BCE, near what is now the country of Georgia. Similar evidence was found in southeastern Armenia dating back to around the same time, and in northern Greece dating back to around 4450-4000 BCE.

Across the world and throughout most of human history, grapes have primarily been used for winemaking purposes. In fact, according to food historian and author Francine Segan, throughout much of history, wine (along with fermented beer) was the preferred drink in antiquity because water wasn’t always safe to consume. There were periods when even babies and children drank wine (albeit it a much more diluted version than what we know today). Our ancient ancestors considered wine, and the grapes they came from, essential for good health and proper digestion.

(Image of Dionysus: Eden Studio/The Image Bank/Getty Images)

Grapes were a prominent feature in ancient mythology (Remember Dionysus, anyone?) and they’re are mentioned throughout the Bible, too. One of the first things Noah does after the Great Flood in the Old Testament is plant a vineyard. Jesus turns water into wine. Even in 2019, Christians who take part in Holy Communion use wine or grape juice to represent the blood of Christ in part of an important symbolic ritual. ­

According to a post on the website The Art of Mourning, grapes have been used throughout history as Christian symbolism in jewelry (and other items) throughout the world:

“It is a plant which grows in abundance and one of the earliest cultivated crops known to mobilized society, hence the connection to the symbol bearing fruit for the harvest. Here is an element of birth/rebirth within the representation of the grapes and also its connection to victory, as the ripe harvest shows the promise of the fruits rewards being reaped and turned into the production of sustenance for the future as well as a product which promotes happiness.”

Grape Symbolic Jewelry Examples (Image: The Art of Mourning)

It seems raisins were discovered by accident, when humans found dried grapes on vines and discovered they liked the taste. Ancient wall paintings show that dried fruits were consumed (and also used as decorations) in the Mediterranean regions of Europe as early as 2000 BCE.

As far as table grapes go, they’re a fairly new delicacy, considering. French King François I is credited with being the source of their rise to popularity – he was known for a fondness for eating Chasselas grapes as dessert during his reign in the 1500s.

(Joos can Cleve portrait of Francis I)

In America explorers and missionaries reported that grape vines were already being utilized by the indigenous peoples prior to their arrival. The oldest grapevine known to still be alive in North America today is a 400-year-old Muscadine vine known as “Mothervine”, located in Manteo, North Carolina.

William Thompson was a Scottish-immigrant-turned-California-grape-grower who imported a variety of grapes from what is now the area of Iran and Turkey over to his vineyards in the Golden State. In 1876, he created his first 50-pound crop of thin-skinned, sweet, seedless grapes. By 1920, the Thompson seedless grape was the first commercialized seedless grape. It remains the most planted grape in California today.

Seedless grapes, we should mention, are much easier to eat but they have lost some of the health benefits the enriched phtochemical content of grapes seeds used to provide. No biggie, though, since they’re still loaded with other great health benefits.

(Image: Pretty Lady Grapes, grown in Central California]

These days, grape products have successful industries in all 50 U.S. states, according to the NGRA (National Grape Research Alliance). The presence amounts to over $162 billion in contributions to the American economy, with the major player being our home state of California. The Golden State produces most of the country’s table grapes, raisins, and wine products.

Globally, a third of all vineyards can be located in Italy, Spain, and France. But grapes are a popular harvest item in other places throughout the world, including Turkey, Chile, Argentina, Iran, South Africa, and Australia.

According to the 2002 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization, 29,291square miles) of the world is dedicated to grape making. Approximately 71 percent of world grape production is used for wine, 27 percent for fresh fruit, and two percent for dried fruit. That translates to 7.2 trillion gallons of wine made every year, 800,000 tons of raisins produce annually, and 72 million tons of grapes produced annually. In fact, the average American consumes about eight pounds of fresh grapes each year. (We’re guessing people around our office probably eat far more than that!)_

Interested in learning more about the history of grapes? Visit the following articles:

How Grapes Changed the World

Grapes, A Brief History

Grapes: New World Encyclopedia

The Raisin Industry History