Wine Grapes vs Table Grapes: How They Are Different & Why

Even most people who have no interest in winemaking are familiar with the fact that wine is made out of grapes.  That being said, many people don’t go beyond this cursory knowledge and assume that grapes people eat at the dinner table are identical to grapes used to make the various red and white wines available throughout the world.

In reality, nothing can be further from the truth.  Wine grapes and table grapes are two very distinct types of fruit which are each optimized for their role in the culinary world.  Their distinct characteristics make them best used for what they were cultivated to do.

What Makes a Wine Grape Special

Wine grapes tend to be smaller than table grapes.  They are optimized for fermentation as well as for a certain amount of tannins, for most wines.  Practically speaking, this means that they are paradoxically higher in sugar content compared to table wines.  The reason this is the case is because sugar is the primary ingredient in the fermentation process.  Under fermentation, yeast will convert sugars into CO2 and alcohol.

The tannins come from the skin of a grape, meaning that most wine grapes tend to be thicker skinned than table grapes.  Wines grapes also tend to have more seeds than table grapes, with the latter often being seedless.  These additional components help add that savory, full bodied, high tannin quality which characterizes many red wines.

Wine grapes have less pulp than table grapes, which makes them less sturdy and more difficult to transport.  Although the grapes have thicker skin, this is not sufficient to overcome the structural weakness caused by the relative lack of pulp.  Wine grapes are lower yield than table grapes, as an emphasis is placed on quality vs quantity when growing the grapes.  Finally, wine grapes are entirely made from the species VitisVinifera, which originated in Iran and spread to much of Europe.

How Table Grapes Are Different

Table grapes are optimized for eating.  They are large and plump, compared to the much smaller wine grapes.  They are actually lower in sugar than wine grapes, and lower in acidity as well.

Table grapes are typically seedless and much “pulpier” compared to wine grapes.  This “pulpier” quality gives the grapes a much more solid, food-like quality.  They are thinner skinned than wine grapes, but are structurally more robust, because of the level of pulp inside the grape.  This makes table grapes much easier to transport.  Table grapes are grown with an emphasis on quantity, so table grape vines can grow up to three times as many grapes as wine grape vines.

Most notably, while wine grapes are made from VitisVinifera, table grapes encompass several different species of grapes, including VitisRotundofolia, Vitis Labrusca, and of course VitisVinifera.  Each table grape species can also have multiple cultivars that are marketed as different grape varieties sold in supermarkets. The end result is a wide range of grapes which are speciated, as well as cultivated.

Why can’t wine grapes be used for consumption?

Technically, wine grapes are perfectly edible.  They are not dangerous for human consumption by any means.  That being said, they are not good candidates for eating because of the same characteristics which make them great for making wine.  Because wine grapes are small, filled with seeds, and thick skinned, the effort to reward ratio of eating such a grape is too high.  The amount of edible material is minimal, and the amount of skin and seeds one has to sift through to get to the good part is not worth it.  In addition, because it is less pulpy and more juicy, the edible portion of wine grapes is not as solid and filling as it is for table grapes.

Why Can’t Table Grapes Be used for making wine?

Similar to wine grapes, table grapes are specialized specifically for one function – being eaten.  Because of this, they do not have the proper characteristics to make good wine.  They have lower sugar levels, which means it is more difficult to induce fermentation using table grapes.  Considering the fact that fermentation is the most important chemical reaction used to create wine (or any other alcoholic beverage), difficulty fermenting would be a strong issue.

In addition, many wines are known specifically for their varying level of tannin and acidity.  Table grapes are thin skinned and lower in acid content, so they would be unable to make any grapes which possess these characteristics.  This would limit table grapes to making a vary narrow and bland variety of wines.

Finally, fermented beverage are typically made by mixing yeast in some sort of liquid mix.  However, table grapes are much pulpier, so it would be more difficult to create a liquid mixture in which fermentation can be induced.  With all this being said, making wine is certainly not completely impossible using table grapes.  With sufficient sugar and a comfortable temperature, yeast can be induced to ferment.  However, the resultant beverage that would be made would hardly be recognizable to many people who call themselves wine aficionados.

How Domestication of Plants Fits In

Why exactly have these two distinct types of grapes evolved, seemingly designed specifically for the role that they are used?  The reason this is the case is because of domestication and selective breeding of plants by human beings.  A similar parallel can be seen in dogs.

Dogs are all descendants of the gray wolf but have been selectively bred over thousands of years for specific tasks.  Retriever dogs are built to grab fowl killed during the hunting process, with an emphasis on grabbing the bird with a light bite.  Guard dogs are built for their strength and aggression.  Toy dogs are built specifically to be compact and easy to care for in an urban environment.  Gray hounds have been bred for racing.

In all of these cases, humans have directly interfered with the evolutionary process to create dogs which are designed to do specific tasks.  It is doubtful that ancient humans were aware of the level of variety they were creating through this process of selective breeding, but the end result remains impressive.

Similarly, various plants grown in farms have been altered throughout the generations for specific purposes.  This process has occurred with virtually all fruits and vegetables.  The natural ancestors of these plants tended to be smaller, less nutritious, less tasty, and more filled with seeds and other inedible parts.  However, throughout the years, humans have bred plants with desirable traits generation after generation, until very tangible changes to these plants have occurred.  Indeed, most of the fruits and vegetables found today in supermarkets would be completely unrecognizable to our ancestors.

This same process occurred with grapes.  Humans came into contact with various grape species in prehistoric eras, and eventually were able to discover both their edibility and their utility in making wine.  Farmers focusing on making wine continued to grow grapes which contained more tannin, fermented more easily, and contained various flavor profiles which were found to be desirable in wine.

To Conclude

Farmers who were focusing on making grapes for consumption focused on maximizing the size of the grapes and minimizing the various inedible or less edible portions of the fruit, such as seeds and skin.  Throughout the generations, this has caused grapes to diverge into roughly two separate categories of grape.

Simply put, wine grapes and table grapes are both creations of man.  The wine grape is smaller, seedier, juicier, and thicker skinned, while the table grape is larger, pulpier, and thinner skinned.  Each variety of grape has been optimized for its specific use in the culinary world.