(Feb. 26, 4:54 p.m.) The popularity of California table grapes in Canada and Asia shows no hint of diminishing.

Exports of fresh California grapes increased 59% since 1998, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while the value of those exports increased 123% over the same period.

Despite being a consumer favorite outside of the U.S., domestic and foodservice fresh grape buyers will not be left out in the cold, said Susan Day, vice president of international marketing for the California Table Grape Commission, Fresno, Calif.

“The percentage of export versus total crop has remained pretty constant over the years,” Day said, “Grapes are just becoming more popular overall.”

Several factors played a role in the growing demand for fresh California grapes, Day said, including the strengthening of economies in many trading countries. So, too, has the expansion of the modern retail trade, which Day said presented the commission with an opening to maximize the opportunity, especially in China.

“Consumers in China’s major eastern seaboard cities love California grapes,” Day said. “There is a small but very affluent segment of the Chinese population, and 10% of a country the size of China is a lot of people.”

The commission recently completed a series of focus groups in China. The findings revealed Chinese consumers prefer California grapes over all others, Day said.

To promote California grapes, the commission has been working with retail chains in China and other countries using in-store promotions such as sampling and distributing leaflets containing nutritional information and recipes.

Red globes remain the dominant variety in Asia, Day said, in part because it is a hearty variety that can stand up to conditions found in many outdoor markets. But the commission is finding increasing interest in other varieties and in seedless varieties, she said.

Of California’s volume of 90 million cartons in 2007, nearly 34 million cartons of fresh grapes were exported, according to the state’s department of agriculture. One-third of that exported volume went to Canada, the fruit’s No. 1 export market. China was second, followed by Mexico. Record export volumes went to Central America, the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, Australia and South Korea.

It is too early to forecast the volume or quality of the 2008 crop, Day said. As for exports, sales may depend on the exchange rate.

“If the dollar can stay at the current level, then we’re in a much more competitive position especially for those countries that have either domestic grapes or other options during our season,” Day said.