Irma Forces Harvest Decision at Surry Community

Grapes rest on the vine at the Surry Community College Vineyard before being harvested ahead of Hurricane Irma.

Vineyards across the Yadkin Valley, and indeed the entire state of North Carolina, are closely eyeing the progress of Hurricane Irma.  While the track of the monster storm is still uncertain, vintners cannot wait until the last minute to decide whether or not to harvest. 

“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. Harvesting takes time, and so a decision must be made sooner rather than later.

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. 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, and the plan was to harvest them this week. 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 Community College, located in Dobson, is home to the Shelton-Badgett North Carolina Center for Viticulture and Enology.  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.


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