Grapes with rich flavors, at last!
It is the supreme irony of modern fruit commerce that grapes, celebrated for producing rich, complex flavors in wine, appear as fresh fruits almost exclusively as neutral-flavored varieties, sweet but bland.
It wasn’t always so — there was a time, before neutral seedless grapes proliferated, that deeply flavorful grapes were commonplace in California. Farmers grew them widely in the late 19th century, but over time they were replaced with firmer, larger and less flavorful grapes that shipped and stored well.
Fighting this tyranny of vapidity, inspired breeders today have developed table grapes with novel, even noble flavors — strawberry, intense muscat and fine wine — revolutionizing the fruit’s possibilities. After decades of crosses and tests, these supergrapes are starting to be sold at groceries and farmers markets.
A “flavored grape” — to make the distinction clear — is one with a strong flavor, as opposed to a bland, generic one. Typical Western table grapes such as Flame, Thompson and Crimson have what in the trade is called a neutral flavor: They’re sweet and juicy but have very limited flavor or aroma beyond a generic sweetness and acidity. Some varieties have a pleasing astringency in the skin, but that’s about it.
The largest grower of this new type, Grapery, sells flavored grapes under two brands containing a succession of varieties over the season. Its main label, Gum Drops, is in stores till early October. The first variety sold by that name is Candy Snaps, which are small, round and firm, with a superb strawberry flavor. Next will come Candy Hearts (originally called Candy Charms, until it was discovered that that was also a porn star’s name), which are oval and light red with a fruity muscat flavor. Last will be Candy Dreams, which are small and reddish black with a strong grape lollipop flavor.
Grapery also markets experimental flavored varieties grown in small quantities under its Flavor Pops brand in late August and September.
The story of flavored grapes started improbably in 1964 when James N. Moore, a fruit breeder at the University of Arkansas, started working with Concord-type grapes, derived from Vitis labrusca and other species native to the Eastern United States, which typically have rich, fruity flavors but also thick, astringent skins and soft flesh. He crossed them with California table grapes (of the European species Vitis vinifera), which were large, firm and seedless but also bland, and sought to combine the best attributes of both in new varieties. Grape plantings there remained limited, however, and in 2002, Moore’s successor, John R. Clark, licensed his program’s gene pool to International Fruit Genetics, a then-new fruit breeding company operating in Delano, Calif., 30 miles northwest of Bakersfield — table grape central.
IFG Breeder David W. Cain backcrossed the Arkansas grapes to Western varieties, and early on struck gold with Cotton Candy, a firm, green-amber grape with a sweet toffee flavor, which developed a cult following after its introduction in 2011. Skeptics snickered but children loved it. (The word genetics in IFG’s name might alarm technophobes, but Cain made only old-fashioned crosses — applying pollen to flowers — without genetic modification.)
Through thousands of crosses over four generations, Cain eventually discovered 45 promising varieties, including more than a dozen with bold flavors, and figured out how best to grow them. California farmers have planted close to 1,000 acres of IFG’s flavored grapes, aside from Cotton Candy. Small amounts were sold in the last few years at markets, such as Gelson’s, Sprouts and Whole Foods in Southern California, and much larger quantities will be available this year.
Some of the best of these haven’t made it into large-scale production yet but are among the dozen IFG flavored grape varieties that Murray Family Farms planted three years ago on 10 acres in Arvin, southeast of Bakersfield.
The oddest-looking but most spectacular-tasting is IFG Thirty-four, which hasn’t been given a marketing label but is nicknamed “Scraggly” for its sparse bunches. Its dark purple berries have an incredibly intense, complex Concord flavor, with hints of eucalyptus, mint and cardamom — like a fine wine in fresh fruit.
Another of Cain’s favorites, available for now only from Murray, is Sweet Mayabelle, which is small, red and crunchy like Flame but packed with muscat flavor.
Murray sells at 30 farmers markets, including Santa Monica, Hollywood, Torrance, Pasadena, Encino and Irvine, where consumers can find varieties by name and taste samples. Because Cain has come up with more varieties than chain stores can readily promote, their nomenclature for now is an inscrutable mix of numbered variety names, variety-linked trademarks and group brands for multiple varieties. Later this year, IFG is planning to establish new marketing brands for flavors such as tropical, spicy and muscat, said Andy Higgins, IFG’s chief executive.
Currently, flavored varieties account for less than 1% of the table grapes grown in California, which produces 99% of the commercial table grapes in the United States. But who knows? The glory days may yet return.