From The Winston-Salem Journal By Michael Hastings | Journal Food Editor
Published: September 16, 2009
Though vineyards and wineries have had varying experiences in different parts of the region, winemakers generally report smaller yields this year but better-than-average ripeness.
Overall, it was a moderate summer and fairly dry. That dryness is generally a good thing for grapes, because it helps develop deeper flavors.
Murphy Moore, the winemaker at Shelton Vineyards near Dobson, said that plenty of sunshine in the past few weeks combined with cool nights, has produced nicely ripened grapes with lots of fruit flavor. "Grapes like a big temperature swing between day and night," she said. "That helps build flavor."
"Shelton's riesling and chardonnay have lots of tropical flavor this year. This is probably our best chardonnay ever," she said. Moore said that the sugar level of the chardonnay, measured in brix, was close to 23. "Sometimes I just get 21, so 23 is nice," she said.
The chardonnay got even higher sugar levels at Childress Vineyards near Lexington. Winemaker Mark Friszolowski said that Childress picked chardonnay at 24.6 brix -- a level more associated with California than North Carolina.
"And the most remarkable things is, because of those cool nights, the acidity stayed," he said.
Proper acidity level is needed to give wines character and balance. Too much acid produces a sharp or tart taste. Too little acid makes wines flat and lifeless. Harvest decisions are typically made based on flavor and sugar, pH and acid levels. Weather conditions, such as impending storms, also figure into the decision.
Friszolowski said he expects the ripeness of the chardonnay to produce a fuller, rounder wine than in most years. But
Friszolowski is most excited about merlot. "So far in my tastings, I think the star is going to be merlot," he said. "I could pick merlot right now and have a better crop than last year."
RayLen Vineyards in Mocksville also had success with the quality of merlot, and also has already harvested it. "The fruit is phenomenal, at 23 brix," said Steve Shepard, RayLen's winemaker. He would be more excited about it, if not for the small crop. "The yields were so low. The merlot came in at half a ton (compared to a typical two and a half to three tons) an acre."
In fact, a lot of wineries report reduced yields on at least some varieties. That resulted from ill-timed spring rains.
"The rain in the spring during flowering destroyed some flowers, and then they didn't pollinate," said Linda King at RagApple Lassie in Boonville, adding that her viognier was particularly hard hit.
Shepard further explained that rain on grapevine flowers leaves them wet and pasty. "Pollen travels better in the wind when it's dry, like powder, like dust." Without that pollination, flowers don't set, and no fruit will come out.
King said that another problem with yields this year was birds. "They were just terrible this year. They were even getting under nets," she said. She cheered up, though, when talking about her zinfandel. "It's really ripe, the juice tastes wonderful, and that's a good sign," she said.
But even with the birds and spring rains, no crops were reported lost. And Shepard said that the superior quality he is seeing may be a result of the smaller number of grapes on each vine.
Moore said she expected 2009 to be "10 times better" than 2008. Shepard said he actually had a good year in 2008, but said that this year looks as good or better, at least for whites.
Friszolowski said that none of Childress' 2008 crop was of good enough quality to produce any reserve wines. "This year is definitely better," he said. "Big, hard rains could still damage the reds. It's always a gamble. We'll see what happens."
Most North Carolina wineries encourage visitors come out to witness the harvests. For more information on wineries, including harvest festivals, visit such sites as www.yadkinwines.com, www.winesofyadkinvalley.com and www.visitncwine.com. The sites link to individual wineries.