”Ten years ago we largely all had same varieties and access to the same varieties. We now all have different varieties. No-one can have all the varieties now. That’s become a key differentiator and part of a successful grape operation, “ John Pandol of California-based Pandol Bros told a panel discussion at the International Table Grape Symposium, led by international table grape consultant Rupert Maude.

Right: "Remember when 19mm was a big grape? Ten years ago that could go anywhere," John Pandol

Pandol reminded delegates that in many countries, grape berries are 2mm to 3mm bigger on average than a decade ago.

Carlos Bon from Divine Flavor noted that it was difficult to find a variety that meets consumer expectations but that also fits the grower.

“Arguably, for me, the best red grape I’ve ever had in my life was grown by JD Karsten (rest in peace) and it was a Krissy. This was back 14, 15 years ago and it was a wonderful Krissy. It was crunchy, it was sweet, it had the right sugar:acid ratio. And the worst I ever tasted are arguably our own Krissys here in Mexico that we pulled up because we couldn’t grow them.”

John Pandol, Gerd Burmester, Carlos Bon, David Hughes and Rupert Maude (photos: Bradley Urion)

Bon observed that patience was missing among many growers: to wait for varieties to become fully ripe before harvesting.

At the end of the day varieties are a means to an end, he remarked, and it’s the grower who makes the difference. “Genetics help, though. Breeding is allowing us to have it both ways: fantastic product and fantastic flavour.”

Gerd Burmester, Vecs director in Peru, told the panel of a Peruvian grower who had only a single grape variety, but it was Autumn Crisp and they were excelling in its production.

The complexity of managing many varieties – as many as fifty in some operations! – is huge, and it is finding the sweet spot within the varietal portfolio that exercises many grape companies and growers.

Bryan Duarte, sourcing manager at Walmart, pointed out that it was difficult to gauge what the right grape was at the right time and at the right maturity, when varieties overlap.

What are the peers of table grapes?
A number of the panellists placed table grapes’ closest competition in the junk food aisle; KitKat chocolate bars to be specific, according to Prof David Hughes, emeritus professor in food marketing.

On the other hand, there are calls for breeding programmes to look at varieties with higher levels of antioxidants, for instance, to create a health premium for the grape category.

Bryan Duarte observed that during early spring and summer, grapes were competing with all the other fruit in the produce aisle.

Bryan Duarte, David Hughes and Rupert Maude

While consistent supply is the holy grail – an attendee remarked that since the year-round availability of table grapes in Brazil, consumption has concurrently increased – the appearance of highly seasonal fruit like cherries can come between a consumer and their repeat grape purchase.

Duarte explained Walmart’s focus on texture and eating experience, to encourage repeat eating. They have found, he said, that sweet, niche grapes are eaten in smaller quantities, whereas a consumer would eat 2.5lb of green grapes in one sitting.

“I can see a day where you’ll see Chinese grapes everywhere”
Dole South Africa’s deciduous director, Riaan Swart, asked the panel’s opinion on the influence of India and China over the next ten years on global table grape supply since the two countries can supply 12 months between themselves. “They are starting to get access to all the new varieties that we brag about and they have labour costs to beat us all. That will have an influence on the US, South Africa, Peru, Chile and Spain.”

“It’s a concern we should all have,” Carlos Bon agreed.

Gerd Burmester concurred, referring to Chinese-grown Shine Muscat kept in warehouses: it could either deter more grapes from Peru or it could promote grape consumption in China and therefore increase the exports from Peru to China.

Rupert Maude: “I can see a day where you can go anywhere in the world and you’ll see Chinese grapes. The sophistication [of their grape growing] is huge, it’s well-grown and well-packed.”

John Pandol, Gerd Burmester, David Hughes, Rupert Maude with Riaan Swart of Dole South Africa

“On the path to become exciting”
In the past, noted Bon, green grapes were a Russian roulette: a consumer never knew whether they’d be sweet or tart. Nowadays with new varieties consumers can consistently expect sweet green grapes.

“We’ve gone from being a convenient produce but not an exciting commodity. I want to say that during certain parts of the year we’re on a path to becoming an exciting commodity. We’re on the right track, led by flavour.”