If you’re an Italian wine lover, you already know that the grape plays a hugely important role in the quality of the wine. It’s not just the variety of the grape either. The care that the producer puts into its production and harvesting also has an effect. So too does the climate.
The point we’re getting at is that grape selection plays an enormous role when it comes to wine production. That’s why there’s so much variety in the Italian wine industry. Every producer wants to find that perfect combination of grapes that will lead to the next big thing in the industry.
This experimentation also means that many grapes get identified as mainstays that find their way into all sorts of wines. Chardonnay is used for much more than the wines of the same name, as is the Pinot Noir grape.
But those aren’t the grapes we’re going to focus on today. Instead, we’re going to look at a grape that Italy ranks number one in the world for when it comes to sheer use.
Best of all, this is a grape that you may not have even heard of. We’re looking today at the Vitis Vinifera.
What is It?
The simple answer is that it’s a grape. But you already know that, so we guess we’d better go into a little bit more detail.
Roughly translated to “the common grape vine”, Vitis Vinifera is perhaps the most widely used grape in the entire world. It’s also a grape that’s a little difficult to pin down as it’s not one that has spread to various regions due to trade or other influences. Instead, its nature means that it’s native to many regions, including the Mediterranean, Iran, and central Europe.
It also has more variety than practically any other grape in the world. All told, there are somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 varieties of the grape that grow throughout the world. Of those, only a few hundred are usable for the making of wine and other grape-based products.
That’s where Italy really stands out, as the country makes use of 350 different varieties of the Vitis Vinifera grape in all of its wine.
It’s also one of the most versatile grape families around. Beyond its obvious uses in the Italian wine industry, it’s also used for making grape juice, raisins, and as a common household grape.
More interestingly, most in the wine industry postulate that practically every grape that is used as the basis of a wine can find its origins somewhere in the Vitis Vinifera family.
The History of the Grape
To understand the true influence that Vitis Vinifera has had on the global wine industry, we need to look at its history.
Historians believe that the use of the grape as a food source dates all of the way back to the Neolithic period. This is likely because it’s a grape that grows so easily that people didn’t need to actively harvest it, especially during the hunter-gatherer days.
As humanity advanced, so too did farming technology. Naturally, Vitis Vinifera became a popular crop around the world just because of its hardiness and sheer abundance. For thousands of years, people have harvested the grape for everything from its nutritional value through to its purported medical benefits.
It’s also not an exaggeration to say that the Italian and global wine industries would not exist were it not for the grape.
Most researchers agree that the grape was first domesticated one a wide scale at some point between 3500 and 3000 BC. However, earlier examples of small scale domestication trace back all of the way to 6000 BC.
As a result, the first wines ever made used Vitis Vinifera grapes. It was a popular grape during the Ancient Greek and Etruscan eras of winemaking, and it retained this popularity right through to the times of the Romans.
Simply put, the history of the Vitis Vinifera grape family is the history of wine. Without it, we would not have the industry that we have today. In fact, grapes that slot into the Vitis Vinifera still account for the vast majority of the world’s wine production, with many of the grapes that you’re already familiar with being linked to the family in one way or another.
Because of this, it’s also one of the most studied grapes in the world. In fact, Nature magazine published the results of extensive research which was designed to map out the genome sequence of the Vitis Vinifera family a few years back. This made the grape only the fourth species to undergo this process and the results taught us enormous amounts about how plants have evolved over the years. It also shows us an enormous amount about how these genetic changes have influenced the flavour and aroma of wines over the years. From the Vitis Vinifera genome, you can create links to practically any grape in the world.
That’s not all. Further research showed that evolutions in the grape family are responsible for any entire sub-section of the wine industry. You see, thousands of years ago, every Vitis Vinifera grape was a red grape. However, scientists believe that a double mutation in the grape’s genome produced a white variety from which all other wide varieties have come. A single mutation would not have been enough. Simply put, if it wasn’t for the existence of and continued evolution of the Vitis Vinifera, we would not have the white wine industry as we know it today. We may not even have it at all.
The Final Word
In reality, the Vitis Vinifera isn’t really an individual grape at all. Instead, it’s the common grape from which practically every other grape used in the Italian wine industry came from. It’s not exaggeration to say that we would not have an industry at all were it not for this grape.
Italy continues to honour the Vitis Vinifera through its extensive use. As mentioned, you can find 350 varieties of the grape family in the Italian wines that you’re drinking at home.
It’s no wonder that the only continent that doesn’t cultivate it is Antarctica.