Days before the storm struck Florida, Hurricane Irma was already affecting at least one local industry.
The threat of heavy rain and high winds forced Shelton-Badgett North Carolina Center for Viticulture and Enology officials to harvest some of their grapes a little early, ahead of the storm’s potential arrival in this region.
Officials with Surry Community College, which houses and oversees the center, said they had little choice.
“Vintners cannot wait until the last minute to decide whether or not to harvest,” the school said Friday.
“The problem is that even one to two inches of rain will cause the sugars to drop. If the wind doesn’t tear the grapes from the vine, the fruit would rot before the sugar levels have a chance to recover,” said Ashley Morrison, chair of the Science Division at Surry Community College. “Harvesting too early means the acid level is still relatively high, and the sugar content is not optimally developed either.”
Therein lies the conundrum that winegrape growers face.
“They want the fruit to continue to ripen because sugar content is directly related to alcohol content and to some extent the body and flavor intensity of the finished wine; however, pulling it in a bit early is better than losing most or all of the crop,” college officials said. “Harvesting takes time, and so a decision must be made sooner rather than later.”
The decision was to go ahead and harvest the grapes this past week, even if some were a little early.
“The grape growing season in the area has been excellent so far, and almost all area vineyards will be finished with harvest within the next four weeks,” the school said. “White varietals ripen earlier, and four of them have already been harvested and crushed: Chardonnay, Traminette, Aromella, and Albariño.
“The college’s Malbec was harvested earlier this week since it was ready. Merlot and Petit Manseng are very close to being ready,” the school said, to officials decided to go ahead and harvest at the end of the week and over the weekend.
“There is concern regarding the ripeness of the bolder red varietals, which require longer growing seasons – most likely the Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Montepulciano will remain in the vineyard with hopes that most of the crop will survive Hurricane Irma.”
There is a silver lining for the Surry Community College vineyard, according to Viticulture Assistant Darren Redding.
“The vines that will not be picked prior to the storm are young, and any fruit harvested will be a bonus,” Redding said. “Usually, grapes are not harvested for winemaking purposes until vines are a minimum of three years old, and the vines in question are exactly at that threshold.”
Surry offers a degree and diploma in viticulture and enology along with certification tracks in viticulture, enology, and wine marketing. Students receive hands-on educational experiences at the on-campus vineyard and on-campus winery.
SCC is the only college campus with a bonded winery on the entire East Coast. It is also the only winery in the U.S. to teach sparkling wine production. Surry also offers viticulture and enology workshops during the year through the Corporate and Continuing Education department. To learn more about the program, visit www.surry.edu/wine. You can also follow the program on Facebook @ncviticulturecenter and Instagram @surrycellars.