Table Grapes vs. Wine Grapes: What’s the Difference?

grapes.jpgDang it. We polished off our last bottle of Vinesse-curated wine last night, the wine rack is empty, and we have guests coming over tonight.

No problem. We’ll just drive over to the market, buy a few bags of grapes and a packet of yeast, and make our own wine.

Uh… no.

Besides the fact that we’d be buying the wrong type of yeast, not to mention that we don’t have any barrels sitting around the house, there’s another problem: There’s a big difference between table grapes — the kind we buy at the market — and wine grapes.

Actually, there are several big differences…

* Table grapes have thin skins, which makes them wonderful for snacking on a hot summer day. But because they’re thin, they don’t possess much in the way of tannins, important for imparting color and “ageability” to wine. Tannins come from thicker-skinned grapes.

* Wine grapes are much sweeter than table grapes — although that may seem hard to believe. Whereas table grapes are picked when their sugar levels are in the 12-15 percent range, wine grapes remain on the vines until their sugar level climbs to around 23-30 percent. The higher level is necessary for the yeast (not the kind found at the market) to be able to convert the grape juice into alcohol through the fermentation process.

* Wine grapes are smaller. And that’s a good thing, because smaller grapes are more concentrated in flavor, another important factor in producing an exceptional wine.

* Table grapes produce much higher yields because, well, they’re allowed to. Table grapevines are trellised in a way that allows the bunches of grapes to hang without touching each other, which enables a single vine to produce upwards of 30 pounds of fruit. Wine grapevines are intentionally “cut back” to limit their yields — typically less than 10 pounds of fruit per vine — and intensify their flavors.

* Finally, there’s the scientific difference. Wine grapes come from the species Vitis Vinifera, whereas table grapes come from other species such as Vitis Labrusca and Vitis Rotundifolia.

So, best to save the winemaking for the men and women who have access to the best wine grapes from the best wine-growing regions, and to enjoy table grapes for what they are: a delicious, if somewhat addictive, snack. (As is the case with popcorn, I could munch on grapes all day long if my better half didn’t confiscate the bowl…)


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