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Grape expectations

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Not just for making wine, grapes have a place in the kitchen

I attended a wedding at a beautiful vineyard a few years ago. The ceremony was conducted outdoors under a pergola covered in green heart-shaped leaves with tiny, honey-coloured clusters of grapes hanging amidst twirling tendrils of vine. It was a very romantic setting. The grapes themselves, little chardonnay grapes, were a mouth-puckering sour.

Grapes are thought to be the earliest of cultivated fruits. Evidence of established vines date back to as early as the Stone Age, in the Caucasus, where it is believed they originated, as well as the Mediterranean region.

The giddiness that resulted from eating fermented grapes was discovered just as early on, though wine as we know it today is a far cry from the gritty, pulpy, seedy, mud-textured "liquid" that the ancient Greeks sampled. Dionysus, was not so much a God of wine, but of the disillusionment and passion associated with the consumption of the fermented grape juice.

In Roman times, the infamous Censor, Cato, established kissing as a welcoming gesture when he decreed all husbands to test the breath of their wives so that they might easily discover if they had been drinking in their absence. The Gauls, inventors of the cask, became masters of vine cultivation but it was not until later that the monks elevated grape cultivation to the art of wine making as we know it today. Throughout these times, grapes were grown and consumed as a readily available fruit.

There are thousands of varieties of grapes in the world. Different varieties range in colour from pale yellows and greens to blushing pink to dark purple and almost black. Grapes may be bitter, sour, sweet or juicy and any combination in between. The genus name, Vitis, is the Latin word for "life", part of the same family of words like vitality and vital.

In fact, grape vines are very easy to grow. At the federal breeding station in Morden, Manitoba, cuttings are rooted in pails of sand.

Getting a grape vine to produce fruit is not as easy. Grapes need a long, hot summer with a lot of sun to ripen clusters of berries by early autumn. Ripe grapes have a musty, sweet aroma. In 986 Viking sailors recounted discovering a distant land, beyond the land they called Greenland; how invigorated the seamen were by the intoxicating smell of ripening grapes while still a hundred miles from shore. They named the western continent Vinland or vine-land.

Wild grapes were well established along the North American eastern sea board when Europeans arrived in the 1600s. Water was considered such a dangerous drink in Europe in those days, the colonists continued to ferment grains and berries in order to consume the safer alcoholic drinks after arriving in the New World. Thomas Jefferson, concerned about the consumption of hard liquor by the Virginians, advocated that a good wine industry might help with the widespread inebriation. Grape cultivation continued.

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