NORTH CAROLINA (QUEEN CITY NEWS/PINPOINT WEATHER) – “It is beautiful here, though,” winemaker Chris Nelson takes in the scenery at Raffaldini Vineyards daily. 

Lines of vines focus solely on Italian varietals, “this is our favorite block of Sagrentino; it’s most unique to what we do here,” trailblazing with the North Carolina mountains in view since 2001.

“This is the most grapes we’ve ever got off the property,” explained Nelson. “We got about 89 tons off of our 28 acres.”

While it was a fruitful growing season this year, “this was the shortest harvest we’ve had in 4 years,” he added; it was slow and soggy.

Wet summer waterlogged grapes and slowed their growth. 

“We’re just getting more rainfall; that’s the biggest trend that we’ve seen,” Nelson said.

It’s been soaked more recently.

Temperatures play a crucial role in the success of a vintage over the growing season. A few degrees of difference can make or break your wine. 

While heat, floods, and smoke are all climate conditions that hurt vineyards, heavy rain poses the most significant risk to North Carolina wines.

The Piedmont continues to get more intense hourly rainfall since 1970, adding at least two more days to the calendar with torrential 1″ downpours. 

Some years Nelson got double his average annual rain at Raffaldini Vineyards.

“We have so much humidity in the air. We get a lot of thunderstorms, so we’ll get 4″ of rain in an hour,” explained Nelson. “What do you do to mitigate that? You can’t come back in our vineyard for a few days because it rained so much.”

Nelson adds that with high humidity, thin-skinned, more compact clustered grapes are more at risk of fungus and rot.

“At 85% humidity, every sort of spore, mold, fungus, and microorganism out there loves that,” Nelson said.

So Nelson and his team, “we’ve had record rainfall three out of the last four years,” he explains, need to get creative and adapt. He adds, “What’s the path forward? What varieties are going to thrive in this new warmer, more extreme environment?”

Usually, all the rows are filled with a ton of trees in the vineyard, but Raffaldini is transitioning some trees to a new varietal. They are the first in the state to try the San Marcos varietal because that grape is more resistant to the heavy rain and humidity that falls in the Carolinas and can often cause disease.

Its thicker skin helps fight off the extra moisture, but not without some patience. Nelson will get a first taste in five years.

“We’re hopeful we’ll be the first people in North Carolina to plant the grape, and we’re hopeful it brings us some beautiful wine,” he said.

Beautiful wines also come from the process; Nelson took us through the steps. 

“Into our drying room, the Fruttaio Grande, and in there, I can hold seven tons of grapes at one time, and I have six dehumidifiers and fans,” Nelson explained.

Since our North Carolina grapes are often waterlogged from heavy rain and humidity, Nelson uses a traditional Italian process called “appassimento” to dry them out. 

“The relative humidity is about 85% at day one, and at day four, we’re at 45%, so in that process, we’re removing 20-30% of the weight of the grapes, but what we’re removing is water,” he explained. “So what that’s doing is concentrating our flavors and allowing us to make bolder wines.”

The dried grapes then move to where the magic happens, into the fermentation room, where rows and rows of tanks break down sugar and yeast to make alcohol.

After sitting in the skins to juice up with flavor, the grapes move to get pressed, and with one roll of the machine, the wine starts flowing.

His favorite part is getting a first taste of the harvest. At first, it looks a little cloudy because of the fresh yeast and grape matter; he explained, “it will settle out; it will become clear.”

The taste comes from the type and quality of the grape.

“The grapevine doesn’t know that it’s trying to make a good wine,” Nelson said. “So that’s up to humans that need to intervene to teach it, to train it in such a way, and plan it in such a way.”

But more extreme heat and fires out west and more humidity and heavier rain in the southeast make that planning harder for winemakers from coast to coast. 

“We grow a perennial crop; we don’t get to reseed every year; we don’t let things go fallow,” Nelson explained. “We’re looking for our vines to last 30, 40, 50 years; in order to achieve that, we need to address the truth of what’s coming.”

Whether it means planting new grape varietals or reintroducing old techniques to mitigate a new climate, Nelson is hopeful. 

“I think the grape industry is very much on the forefront of accepting the fact that climates are changing,” he said. “How to attack that; how do we get ahead of what the future is going to bring.”

Your wine will come with an extra note of resilience, and that’s something to toast.