Will 2016 Be a Good Year for Michigan Wine? Time Will Tell

The weather cooperated this year, but the remaining unknown factor is what the vino will do in the bottle as it matures


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At last, a rebound!

That’s the news about the 2016 wine crop from the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, the agency that monitors, promotes, and works with all 124 in-state wineries and their grape growers.

Michigan wineries had endured two years in a row of the worst crop damage in 2014 and 2015, as the infamous polar vortex wiped out crops both in the north and south with a force not seen here in many years. Truly, a one-two punch.

In many cases, entire vines of certain grapes — not just the surface areas or branches — were killed off by the deep freeze. A lot of mature chardonnay vines, for example, had to be uprooted and replaced by new baby vines, which won’t even produce usable grapes for at least three years — and not very good wine at that. Wine grapes tend to come into maturity after the fourth or fifth season, assuming good weather each year. 

So, the wineries held their breath when the buds appeared on the vines in March. “Bud break,” as it is called, is always when Michigan wineries worry most, because the period from March to May is very susceptible to overnight drops below the freezing mark, which, if they get cold enough, can kill off an entire crop for the year. 

For example, a sudden hailstorm in June sent a scare through the industry, but did no damage. So Michigan made it through that danger zone.

If the wines make it to summer without cold damage, the next gauge or marker the wineries look for is called “veraison,” which is essentially noting the grapes start to change color. Most grapes emerge green, and as they grow and become bigger and weightier bunches, their sugars start to increase so that by high heat in August, they mature into their natural colors: purple, red, yellow, or a different green. 

From then on, the very best a winemaker can hope for is hot days, cool nights, and a little rain in between … but not too much. Some areas of the world, such as Bordeaux in France, have sometimes seen too much rain around harvest, which can be a total disaster. The grapes absorb the additional water, diluting the sugars and also the flavors that the winemaker wants to have when grapes are crushed into juice. Sugars make alcohol in the wine.

This September, however, was near perfect in Michigan. And, one by one, the vineyard managers wandered the rows of vines with their refractometers, checking and rechecking the sugar level by slicing open a sample grape and rubbing the juice on the glass plate to read its Brix, as the level is called. 

Each grape variety — pinot noir, merlot, cabernet franc, vidal blanc, and chardonnay — is picked at a different Brix level: the pre-established benchmark number at which the grape is most ready in a normal year. 

Thus far, we can write in 2016 as an excellent year weather-wise, with a crop that is expected to produce around 2.3 millions gallons of wine.

The remaining unknown factor is what the wine will do in the bottle as it matures.  We do know now that when the 2016 wines are released and reach the store shelves starting next summer, these are going to be good or very good wines. 

But to know if we have a truly great year? That will take more time in the bottle.

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