Bad Weather, Good Grapes

Lee Griffin of Charlotte, owner of Rockhouse Vineyards in Tryon, says they lost all their chardonnay and viognier and only got about 60 percent of the usual harvest of red grapes. But those reds will be something.

"The cabernet was the deepest color," Griffin said, "the biggest mouth feel and concentration I've seen in a long, long time."

Even specialists who don't have wine to sell were excited. Sara Spayd, viticulturist with N.C. State University, has been evaluating grape losses throughout the freeze-and-drought cycle. Although she has seen plenty of damage, she said: "The grape quality was stupendous."

Some wineries are finding ways to make it extra special. On April 22, Childress Vineyards in Lexington will release Trio, a wine made from three white grapes that survived: viognier, chardonnay and semillon.

"I wanted to call it 'Minus 15,' because that's how cold it got," winemaker Mark Friszolowski said jokingly. When the freeze lifted after several nights last April, they had lost 90 percent of their white-wine grapes. So he tried a desperate move.

"I said, 'Let's pick what we have.' " They picked what was left as each variety ripened, adding it all together as they went.

They didn't get much, so Trio will be available only at the winery, for $14.99. But he's pleased with the result: "It actually came out like what it's not, a pinot gris."

Credit the weather. The cold thinned the grapes on the vines, cutting yields. Vineyards do that anyway, to concentrate sugars in the grapes that are left, although not as drastically as nature did it.

Then came that long, dry summer, which concentrated the grapes that were left. The result: Small yields, big flavors.

Sean McRitchie of McRitchie Vineyards in Thurman, just north of Elkin in the Yadkin Valley, is from a winemaking family in Oregon, where they're accustomed to tough weather. "I've always believed the most disastrous weather vintages yield the best wines," he says. "I was getting fruit in the winery at chemistry numbers that were almost like Napa."

Although some areas had less than 25 percent of a crop, there are no numbers yet on total grape loss. Since yields are small, the resulting wines may be able to command higher prices. And because so little wine will be made, you won't find many '07s on shelves in Charlotte.

For that, you may need to visit the wineries, starting in April or May for white wines and July for reds. Some, like red wines from Shelton Vineyards, will be released over the next couple of years to allow for barrel aging.