Table vs Wine: What is the Greatest Grape?
There is something so satisfying about the juicy crunch of a fresh green grape. And, as well all know, wine comes from grapes…so why not try and take a couple hundred of these delicious little packets of edible delight from the grocery store, mash them up, throw in some yeast and see if you can make some wine at home? Before you go through the effort of home winemaking, a few of the drastic differences between wine and table grapes should be taken into account.
An Ocean Apart
All of our favorite wines are often labeled by the specific type of grape used in production. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are just a handful of the 5,000+ known varieties. These fall into the species Vitis Vinifera and are native to the Middle East, North Africa, and the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
There are many other species of grapevine as well, most coming from the eastern United States with several Asian examples. Norton, Concord, and Muscadine are each a type of native American vine. These fall into several different species including Vitis Labrusca, Vitis Rotundifolia, and Vitis Riparia. While large-scale farming of these species is primarily focused on table grape and raisin production, they are at times used for wine as well.
One of the most important aspects of making quality wine is ensuring that you can get as much flavor as possible out of the skins of the grapes. Different types of grapes will have varying levels of flavor and aromatic compounds which really define a wine’s final flavor, color, and smell. Due to their thicker skins, European grapes have a higher concentration of these compounds resulting in more flavorful wine.
Wine grapes also tend to have a smaller berry compared to table grapes. Because wine grapes are so much smaller, they have a greater overall skin-to-juice ratio, increasing extraction for the final product. Most grapes used in wine have a diameter of about one centimeter, compared to table grapes which are often an inch long or more.
Developing the Perfect Glass
A great glass of wine is should drink like a symphony. There should be harmony, counterpoints, and a story to be told. Wine does this with a balance of flavors and components which affect the way the wine feels on your palate. Acid, tannin, and alcohol are just three of the elements which require balance in an artfully crafted bottle of wine.
is what makes your mouth water, and European grapes tend to have a much higher acid content than typical American species. The primary acids found in grapes are tartaric and malic, though other acids will emerge throughout the winemaking process. Too much acid and your wine can be quite tart and unpalatable, but too little and it will be flabby.
Alcohol occurs as a result of fermentation and is directly related to the amount of sugar found in the grapes used for the wine. Most wineries in the United States use a measurement known as degree. Brix to figure out the amount of sugar in their fruit. Measured with a tool known as a refractometer, Brix levels represent the percent of the pulp which is made up of sugar. Wine grapes are most often harvested at 24-26° Bx, while table grapes tend to fall in the range of 17-19° Bx.
It is more than simply a matter of picking the grapes earlier or later to adjust the sugar content. As grapes develop on the vine, the amount of acid drops while sugar levels increase and the grape becomes physiologically ripe relating to skin thickness and pulp consistency. Different species of grape have adapted to becoming ripe at different times and under-ripe or overripe grapes make pretty poor wine.
Tannin is what dries out your tongue when drinking a bottle of red wine. Grapes produce tannin in the skins, seeds, and stems of the cluster, resulting in a slightly bitter profile. With their thicker skins and proportionally larger seeds, wine grapes are able to extract a greater amount of tannin during fermentation. When balanced with the right amount of acid and alcohol, tannin helps add mouthfeel and body to a wine.
With so many drastic differences between the two types, it is easy to see why European varieties make far better wine than native American grapes. It isn’t to say that it can’t be done, but just because you can do a thing, doesn’t always mean that you should do a thing.