DOBSON — It’s an example of a frugal solution to a problem.
Local grape growers and wine makers were asked to consider adapting air-drying techniques used in tobacco farming to grapes as insurance against too much rain at harvest time.
The idea was part of a Thursday night meeting with local grape producers and win makers at the Extension Service Center.
As many gardeners can attest, a lot of rain at just the right time dilutes the natural sugars in grapes as well as many other fruits. What was proposed is pressing tobacco drying barns into use for drying grapes and bringing the sugar ratio back into line so winemakers can produce vintages commanding higher prices at the cash registers.
According to Extension Agent Joanna Radford, Thursday night’s meeting was an example of an important part of an industry quietly continuing without drawing much attention to itself. Master Gardener Kathleen Demers assisted Radford with the meeting.
Radford explained to the participants the practice of outdoor grape drying to concentrate the fruit, known as “Appassimento,” has been practiced for a long time in vineyards in northern Italy. She said most recently Canadian growers have given the practice a New World tweak and are having good results as well as some producers in Virginia and Raffaldini Vineyard in North Carolina.
She said air drying changes the chemistry of the grapes, concentrating sugars and flavor. Negative points for growers to consider include drying reduces dilution and therefore quantity of juice. Some regions, concentrating on Merlot, have even used this technique to allow grapes extra time to mature. Radford reported on studies which are building an economic case for drying in what amounts to a temperature and humidity controlled chamber.
“In Surry County I see us really benefiting from this because of the weather,” said Radford. “Traditional drying methods used mats or racks to air dry the grapes. There’s probably a lot of barns which could be re-purposed for this. Many of them are self-contained, on concrete pads with heat and forced air for ventilation.”
She told participants there were no special rack needs and said in many cases these barns could be up and running after being sanitized. She said the major concern was stacking the grapes for even air circulation. Radford said some wine makers are experimenting with varying amounts of time for drying depending on the variety of grapes and the style of wine.
Radford said some factors to consider were the grapes not having any rot, with “reasonable maturity” and good quality skins. She said factors to consider were monitoring the grapes to ensure against factors including harmful organisms, acidity and oxidation.
“Testing is being done in Central Virginia and Appalachian State (University),” Radford said. “What research I’ve been able to do indicates air drying has worked better for white grapes while it worked better for reds in Virginia.”
The goal of the meetings is to provide needed information to local producers and wine makers which benefits their operation. Thursday’s session focused on pruning and winterizing grapes.
Reach David Broyles at dbroyles@civitas or 336-719-1952.