Grapes can grow in almost every type of climate, and while they do particularly well in regions such as the Mediterranean (where they have long been established), they are now cultivated on six continents. They are served as a fresh fruit, preserved or canned in jellies and jams, dried into raisins, and crushed for making juice or wine.

Grapes are not notable for their nutrient content, the table grapes that we eat fresh have only low to moderate amounts of vitamins and minerals. But some varieties are good sources of vitamin C. Their juiciness and natural sweetness, combined with a low calorie count, make them an excellent snack and dessert food.

The grape is one of the oldest cultivated fruits: Fossils indicate that the cultivation, or at least the consumption, of grapes goes back to early times, perhaps to the Neolithic era. Hieroglyphics show that Egyptians were involved in grape and wine production, and the early Romans were known to have developed new varieties. And, of course, the grape is mentioned in the Old Testament as the "fruit of the vine."

Today, although modern equipment is employed in certain aspects of grape growing, most viticulture is still done by hand. Grapes grow on woody vines that are not raised from seeds, but are propagated from cuttings or grafted onto existing rootstocks. The vines must be staked or trellised as they grow, to support the heavy bunches of fruit. Leaves and shoots are pruned from the vines and, depending on the variety, the flower clusters or the berries themselves must be thinned by hand to improve the quality of the fruit. Grapes develop sugar as they ripen, but will become no sweeter once picked, so timing the harvest is of the utmost importance. And to ensure that they reach the consumer in full, handsome clusters, table grapes are harvested by hand. Grapes intended for processing can be removed from the vines with mechanical pickers.

Grapes are thin-skinned and easily damaged. They should be displayed no more than two bunches deep, and under refrigeration. The bunches may be wrapped in tissue paper, or enclosed in perforated plastic bags. Loose bunches are easiest to evaluate, but the wrapped grapes are better protected from damage caused by customer handling.

Grapes are not picked and shipped until ripe, so unripe grapes are not usually a problem for the consumer. You can, however, use colour as a guide to the sweetest fruit. Green grapes should tend toward a translucent yellow-green rather than an opaque grass green; all fruit on a bunch of red grapes should be predominantly crimson; and blue grapes should be darkly hued, almost black. Once they have been picked, grapes will not ripen further: If you spot a bunch with many underdeveloped, very green fruits, leave it in the shop.

A bunch of grapes in the market should look as inviting as those in a still-life painting: plump fruit with a silvery white "bloom," tightly attached to moist, flexible stems. The powdery bloom, more visible on dark-colored grapes than on pale ones, is an important sign of freshness; it fades with time and handling. Avoid wrinkled, sticky, or discolored grapes on withered, brown, limp, or brittle stems.

Before storing grapes at home, remove any spoiled fruit. Place unwashed grapes in a plastic bag and store them in the refrigerator. They should keep for about a week.

Wash grapes under cold water just before serving and remove any damaged fruit. Leave the bunch whole, or divide it into smaller branches for serving. (This is easily done with a pair of scissors).