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July, 2010

The Champagne of Grapes

By Dennis Linden

One of the best things about July is Champagne Grapes!

Champagne Grapes

These miniature dark purple clusters of tight bunches on delicate, almost elegant, stem branches will introduce a touch of visual class to retail grape displays for the next two months. And the Champagne is not just a pretty grape face; its small size belies a huge flavor that can be enjoyed as either a fruit snack just built for the enjoyment of kids on a hot summer’s afternoon, or relished as a prized ingredient by home gourmets and chefs tending to high-end restaurant kitchens.

However, despite this versatility and contrary to its name, the variety does not make into a bottle of bubbly. Actually, the name is a testament to the power of advertising. It was born out of a magazine ad photo shoot in the 1960s promoting the grape under its botanically-correct varietal moniker, the Black Corinth. For the shoot, the attractive bunches were posed alongside a flute of Champagne. The name, as well as the image, stuck and subsequent repetitive use in the marketplace soon replaced Black Corinth with the more sexy Champagne.

Still, the provenance of the variety, no matter what one chooses to call it, predates that infamous advertising shoot by some two-thousand years as the grape of the oldest commercially traded fruits found in written history. The Black Corinth was originally grown on the island of Zante off the coast of ancient Greece and named for the city of Corinth; the variety also will sometime go by the alias, Zante Currant. The grapes produced from these early vines were even smaller than they are today and only marketable as a dried ingredient sweetener. The story goes that a donkey was tied to a vine of a Black Corinth and the animal started going around and around it until the halter rope rubbed the bark off. Instead of dying, the vine healed the wound and the grapes, which had always been minuscule, were now large enough to eat and market fresh on the vine.

While this old fable can never be substantiated, there is a lot of technical truth in it. The ancient Greeks did develop a growing process called girdling, which called for stripping the bark off grape vines to increase the size of fruit. Girdling was used to increase the size of the ancient Black Corinth grape and the process is still used today in some vineyards, though a hormone has largely replaced this tedious process. Anyway, once the Greeks figured out a way to plump this variety up to at least the size of a raisin, that’s exactly what they did with it; the drying process extended its shelf life and thus increased its value as a trade commodity. As a sweet raisin, the fruit became an integral component in Greek trade relationships with the early Roman Empire and continued into the 16th century with the English and French, who distributed the fruit across medieval Europe.

In spite of both ancient and modern agricultural technologies, the Champagne Grape still remains the smallest of all fresh varieties in the marketplace, with a stem branch system so tender that it is completely edible. To this edible stem, just attach bunches of tiny chilled grapes with an extremely high sugar content and you have the makings of a refreshing summer snack for kids! For the home and professional chef, Champagne Grapes can be used either as a beautiful edible garnish or as a flavorful sauce ingredient. The small bunches of perfectly formed mini-grapes add grace to any appetizer or meal presentation, as well as a sweetness that pairs well with most meat, fish or fowl. The variety also makes an excellent base for a rich herbal sauce reduction that is wonderful on fish or poultry; sprinkle the tiny grapes into a salad for small bursts of fresh flavor, or serve them with any number of other fruits, yogurts or sorbets to create an endless array of luscious desserts.

The peak of the Champagne Grape season is a short one – July and August. While you can freeze this item for later use, nothing will replicate the juicy sweetness of this fresh fruit in its prime. So add these delectable morsels to your summer shopping list; the kids and your dinner guests will thank you!