Grapes in the Bible are considered one of the seven staple foods. There is mention of grapes in Deuteronomy 8.8 ‘A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey”. Grape was one of the seven fruits that Moses’s messengers discovered in the land of Israel. (Numbers 13: 20-23). Moses, as he led the exodus of Jews from Egypt, sent messengers throughout the promised land in search of fruit and food. The grapevine was one of the fruits brought back by the messengers.
There are extensive references to grapes in Bible. The vine is regarded as the symbol of the children of Abraham. The Christians who followed the ancient Jewish faith regarded the grapevine with reverence. There is a beautiful verse in John 15 that compares the grapevine to Jesus:
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. ..”
In a region whose culture and way of life are so interwoven, grapes also find mention in the Holy Quran. It is regarded as a fruit of the people of paradise. 19: Al Mu’minum states, “Then we brought forth for you in addition to that gardens of date palms and grapes, wherein is much fruit for you and of which you eat.”
There is evidence of grapevine cultivation in Ancient Egypt. A list of vineyards was discovered from the first step pyramid at Saqqara. The step pyramid was built during the reign of King Djoser c 2650 BC to 2570 BC. The list includes the famous vineyard “Horus on the Height of Heaven” that produced wine from those times up to the Greek period. Temples had vineyards of their own. Rameses III lists 513 vineyards belonging to the temple of Amon-Ra.
The Greek God Dionysus is the god of fertility and wine. He is credited with creating wine and viticulture. Bacchus is the comparative Roman God of wine. Bacchus was probably a copy of the Greek God Dionysus. The grapevine across this entire region is tied to fertility, prosperity, and social and cultural rituals. Greek songs and literature, like the works of Homer, have extensive references to wine made from grapes.
The earliest evidence of grape growing goes as far back as 6500 BC. Chemical analysis of wine jars from the Neolithic period in Georgia reveals winemaking taking place in that period. The cultivation of grapes was said to be taking place in the Black Sea region and Persia from the seventh and fourth millennia BC. (Chataignier 1995). It spread with trade, conquest, and cultural exchange to other parts of the world. It was the Greeks who brought viticulture to Marseilles in France. (Robert J Weaver, 1960)
Wild grapevines can be seen growing along river banks in deciduous and semi-deciduous forests in pockets across a wide area in the Trans Caucasian region, Western Europe, and the Mediterranean basin. (Arnold et al., 1998) Most cultivated varieties of grapes come from just one species, Vitis vinifera, which belongs to the Vitaceae family.
The American bunch of vines comes from V. labrusca and its derivatives or the Muscadine type (V.rotuntifolia). Other species, Vitis rupestris, Vitis berlandieri, and Vitis amurensis, produce poor-quality grapes. Plants of these species are primarily used as rootstock on which cultivated grape varieties are grafted. Wine grapes are generally smaller than table grapes. These contain many seeds.
Sixty inter-fertile wild Vitis species are distributed across the subtropical and temperate parts of Asia, North America, and Europe.(Rossetto et.al 2002). The Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that seventy percent of grape cultivation is for winemaking. Of the 10000 types of grapes, 1300 are used in winemaking. The world production of grapes in 2012 has been put at 69 million tons (International Organization of Vine and Wine).
Grape cultivation is best undertaken in sandy or gravelly soils with good drainage. It is not soil fertility but drainage that is critical to grapevine cultivation. Alkaline soils are best avoided—average yields per hectare range from 5 to 20 tons per hectare. Work varies with variety, crop density, pruning intensity, etc.
Apart from the use of grapes in the form of fruit and wine, ancient folk healers made ointment from the sap of grapevines to treat skin and eye diseases. Grapes leaves were also used to arrest bleeding and provide relief in cases of inflammation and pain.
Grape seed, when given to a group of healthy volunteers, was found to raise the level of antioxidants in the blood substantially. Antioxidants are said to retard the pace of cell death, the primary cause of aging. (University of Maryland Medical Center)
Flavonoids are found in red w to help lower LDL (bad cholesterol). The American Heart Association does not recommend though consumption of wine to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Other studies indicate that grape seed can help reduce edema and high blood pressure and mitigate chronic venous insufficiency in the legs, causing pain, swelling, and fatigue (University of Maryland Medical Center). More research is required to validate grape seeds and other medicinal uses. However, the religious and cultural significance of the grapevine endures across the globe.
Link to my book on herbs: Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants
This article was also released on On Jewish Matters