Considered the oldest plants in the world, grapes originated in Armenia near the Caspian Sea and grow on vines in clusters with colours that range from pale green, yellow and orange to purple, pink, crimson, black and dark blue. Native to the Mediterranean, the Central Asian regions, Europe, America and Asia, this fruity berry is delicious raw, juiced or jellied, and is savoured by wine connoisseurs the world over.
Glorious hectares of vineyards in Spain, Italy, France, South America and North America bottle iconic ultra-premium wines unleashing the innovative spirit and pay sensational homage to overwhelm the senses. The oldest known vinery was discovered in Vayots Dzor, Armenia, dating back more than 6,000 years, a heady find indeed, by a team of archaeologists in January 2011. These ancient plants find a notable mention in Kautilya's Arthashastra, written in the fourth century BC. The Susruta Samhita and the Charaka Samhita, written between 1356-1220 BC, mention the healing properties of grapes (draksh). Historians trace the earliest grapes on the Indian subcontinent to the advent of the Aryans. But, its large-scale cultivation in India can be traced back to Persian invaders in the 13th century.
Areas receiving little rainfall and having drained loamy soil with a pH content less than 8.7, typically found in the dry weather States of Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, are most conducive to growing grapes on a highly commercial scale. A rich source of calcium, iron, vitamins, anti-oxidants, bioflavonoids, digestible sugars and a laxative make grapes a highly recommended fruit for medical reasons. Realising the potential of this remunerative fruit crop, Partap Singh Kairon (CM of Punjab province from 1956-64) imported the Anab-e-Shahi and Perlette cultivars from California during the early 1960s. Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu today account for nearly 80 per cent of the total grape production in India, while Bhatinda, Gurdaspur, Ferozepur and Ludhiana produce nearly 70 percent of the grapes grown over 1,400 hectares of vineyards in Punjab.
My sweetest grape feasting memories go back to my school days in Punjab in the late 1970s whilst at Kendriya Vidyalaya No 1, Jalandhar Cantt. Cycling past Major General Rajinder Singh Sparrow's sprawling bungalow on the arterial Mall Road, we teenagers from the Defence Officers' Quarters would often scale the highly decorated General's pristine white-washed walls when there was no sentry at the gate, to feast our eyes on his lush vines, unmindful of the dirty footprints we would often leave behind. On some occasions, a hockey stick was put into action to pull a glorious fruity bunch towards us, with moderate success. Once, we were caught red-handed and severely admonished for our misadventures, by the burly Jat watchman.
Much to our consternation, he marched the six of us to the General himself, who after retirement had avidly taken to farming. I can still remember his twinkling eyes while he elicited from us our names and a solemn promise never to scale walls again to 'steal'! Suitably chastened, we nodded our 13-year-old heads vigorously. The very next afternoon as we pedalled back from school and passed General Sparrow's residence, we were stopped in our tracks by the heavenly sight of a small wooden table with mounds of pearly, juicy green grapes.
Nonplussed, we stopped and the same burly Jat asked us to help ourselves to the fruit. The General's orders, we were told. The great soldier continued to table his divine wares for us school kids until the season was over. We spread the word and soon more friends joined us.
No matter which part of the world we live in now, I know no vineyard in the Napa Valley or Europe could boast of sweeter or more luscious grapes than what we boisterous children feasted on at The Mall in Jalandhar in 1978. Those grapes, certainly, were not sour!