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The most widely planted grape in the world

According to the OIV in Paris, there are about 19 million acres of grape growing across the planet. The great majority of them farmed for commercial purposes are from a species called vitis vinifera and specifically from the many thousands of varieties within that species, i.e. Chardonnay, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Pinot noir, etc. Humans being what we are, we are always looking for Number 1, and so it isn’t unusual to want to know which of these thousands of varieties is the most widely planted.

The short answer is that no one knows for sure. It’s easy to quantify the acreage in the more developed countries like the US, France, Germany, Italy, etc. as they do regular censi of agriculture. But some countries, for any number of reasons, do not do a census of their vineyards. For instance, the OIV states that Uzbekistan had just over 264,000 acres of vines in 2005 but they don’t break them down by variety. The other half dozen “stans” tally in at just over 353,000 acres, but again, with no varietal breakdown. With what’s going on there politically and economically, counting vines is not a top priority.

Likewise, Turkey, the world’s 4th largest grower of grapes, has 1.4 million acres of grapes not identified by variety (this will probably change if they ever get into the European Community which mandates agricultural head counts). Other countries, like China, India and Brazil are growing so fast that numbers of acres are a moving target.

However, it is likely that one grape stands out as a likely candidate: the Kish Mish, also known as Pusa seedless, Cekirdecsis, Sultanina, Wu he hei and dozens of other synonyms for the grape we know as good old Thompson seedless, a grape we use mainly as raisins or for eating fresh. As it is a variety of Middle Eastern origins, it is likely that some portion of the millions of acres planted in the Middle East and surrounding areas (the "stans", north Africa, Iran, Iraq, Greece,Turkey,  China, etc.) are planted to Thompson.

Over the last 20 years or so I have been maintaining a database of what’s planted where. Just from the countries that can be verified, I have a total of just over 880,000 acres of Thompson seedless in the ground which would put it far and away the leader. Another white grape—Airen, from Spain – is second with about 756,000 acres.

"But they’re not really wine grapes!", you say. Actually anywhere from 10 to 30% of California’s Thompson plantings go into making wine, but it’s usually jug stuff or for the production of brandy. Ditto, Airen. OK: if you are just talking about grapes that go into making halfway decent wine, then it looks like a tie between Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot, which have about 720,000 acres each (and who knows how many in that big vine-rabbit called China). Grenache and Tempranillo each have just over 500,000 acres and grape-wonder Chardonnay has just under 500,000. But again, the real count is still out.


Publication date: 10/1/2008


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