Vitis is a genus of about 60 species of vining plants in the flowering plant family Vitaceae. The genus is made up of species predominantly from the earth’s northern hemisphere. It is economically important as the source of grapes, both for direct consumption of the fruit and for fermentation to produce wine. The study and cultivation of grapevines is called viticulture.
Most Vitis species are found in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The wine grape Vitis vinifera originated in southern Europe and southwestern Asia. The species occur in widely different geographical areas and show a great diversity of form. However they are sufficiently closely related to allow easy interbreeding and the resultant interspecific hybrids are invariably fertile and vigorous. Thus the concept of a species is less well defined and more likely represents the identification of different ecotypes of Vitis that have evolved in distinct geographical and environmental circumstances.
Use of grapes is known to date back to Neolithic times, following the discovery of 7,000 year old storage jars in present day northern Iran. Further evidence shows the Mesopotamians and Ancient Egyptians had vine plantations. Greek philosophers praised the healing powers of grapes both whole and in the form of wine. Vitis vinifera cultivation in China began during the Han Dynasty in the second century. However, wild vine mountain grapes were being used for wine making before that time.
The oldest known evidence of wine production in Europe is dated to 4500 BC and comes from archaeological sites in Greece. The same sites also contain the world’s earliest evidence of crushed grapes. In ancient Egypt, wine became a part of recorded history, playing an important role in ceremonial life.
In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was a staunch supporter of wine since it was necessary for the celebration of Mass. In places such as Germany, beer was banned and considered pagan and barbaric, while wine consumption was viewed as civilized and a sign of conversion to Christianity. Monks in France made wine for years, storing it underground in caves to age.
In the Islamic world, wine was forbidden during the Islamic Golden Age. After Geber and other Muslim chemists pioneered the distillation of wine, however, it was legalized for cosmetic and medical uses. The 10th century Persian philosopher and scientist Al Biruni described recipes where herbs, minerals and even gemstones are mixed with wine for medicinal purposes. Wine became so revered and its effect so feared that elaborate theories were developed about which gemstones would best counteract its negative side effects.
Using the sap of grapevines, European folk healers sought to cure skin and eye diseases. Other historical uses include the leaves being used to stop bleeding, pain and inflammation of hemorrhoids. Unripe grapes were used for treating sore throats, and raisins were given as treatments for tuberculosis, constipation and thirst. Ripe grapes were used for the treatment of cancer, cholera, smallpox, nausea, skin and eye infections as well as kidney and liver diseases.
Seedless grape varieties were developed to appeal to consumers, but researchers are now discovering that many of the healthful properties of grapes may actually come from the seeds themselves, thanks to their enriched phytochemical content. Grapevine leaves are filled with minced meat such as lamb or beef, rice and onions in the making of Balkan traditional Dolma.
Grape skins contain carbohydrates that can be broken down into sugar and fermented. Enough ethyl alcohol can be distilled from the skins to create a source of biofuel. 100 tons of grape skins can produce nearly 793 gallons of ethyl alcohol.
47,140 square miles of the world is dedicated to grapes. Approximately 71% of world grape production is used for wine, 27% as fresh fruit, and 2% as dried fruit. A portion of grape production goes to producing grape juice to be used as a sweetener for fruits canned with no added sugar. Areas dedicated to vineyards are increasing by about 2% per year.