By late August, many of the wonderful fruits of summer have either passed their peak or have finished harvesting altogether. Even as I mourn the passing of another cherry season, I always look forward to September and the one summer fruit that gets better and more interesting the further we travel into fall. We all associate grapes with summer and while it is true that early varieties began harvesting here in the U.S. as early as May, truly great grapes need the whole of summertime’s long, warm days to bring out their full flavor and marvelous variety and diversity.
The most common fresh production varieties are red, green and black seedless (or table) grapes. These colors are available year round thanks to global production and varieties that can be harvested at different times of the summer and fall. But something magical happens to grapes the longer they are allowed to hang on the vine and in September, green grapes change in color from a light green to amber yellow — a condition that signals the very highest concentration of sugars of the season. A word of caution on amber grapes: high sugar means fragile fruit so they need to be eaten right away.
The end of summer also marks the peak harvest period for raisin and wine grapes. One of the most common varieties of raisin grapes is the Natural Thompson — a small, rounder version of the thumb sized table (or fresh) variety Thompson Seedless we normally see in our produce departments. Every year a few precious boxes are packed for fresh sale and are truly spectacular. Recently, wine producers have picked up on the practice and have taken to sparing a few fresh boxes from the wine press — among them are varieties such as the Carignan, Grenache and Colombard.
The last type we see in September is an army of antique varieties of seeded grapes. While most folks shy away from a grape with seeds, there’s often no matching the flavor of a Concord, Ribier, Globe or Muscat. Growers have bred seedless varieties but, to me, the fullest flavored fruit have seeds. To remove, simply slice the grape in half and gently scoop the seeds from the center (or like me, you can just sit in your backyard with your 5 year old and see who can spit the seeds the furthest).
When selecting fresh grapes, the stem is the key. Stems that are brown and dried looking generally indicate a grape that has been off the vine for a while. Most table grapes are sold in a bag and, like apples, one bad grape can spoil the whole bunch. It is very important to inspect the bag from all angles to make sure there are no damaged, leaky berries. Once you get grapes home it is a good idea to remove them from the bag, rinse them thoroughly with cold water and place them in a bowl or other container in your refrigerator.
Grapes of all kinds are excellent pared with cheeses but can also be served in salads (chicken or lettuce), and reduced in sauces to serve on pork, chicken or game meats. Concord grapes are, of course, also used to make jellies and jams. Frozen grapes are an excellent warm weather snack for kids of all ages. Enjoy the fall!