Wine: We're No. 5!

A decade-long growth spurt in Michigan wine grape production — and wineries — shows no sign of slowing



A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in November says wine production doubled in the last decade in many areas of Michigan and tripled in others, making this the fifth largest winemaking state in the country — and growing.

The surprise in the report is that pinot noir has vaulted into second place in Michigan, behind chardonnay. For decades, it was believed that Michigan could not grow reds because of the sharp climate. But pinot production is now second to riesling, the state’s decades-long leader.

The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council says Michigan now has more than 100 fully operating wineries, up from 32 a decade ago.

Overall, Michigan now follows California, New York, and Washington for the tonnage of grapes grown, and sits just behind Oregon for overall amount of wine bottled. That disparity is because a large volume of Michigan grapes are grown for use in jams and jellies, which are made with Concord and Niagara grapes. Even with that, our wine volume has more than doubled in the last decade, from 400,000 to 1.3 million gallons. The numbers come from the 2011 Michigan Fruit Survey, which collected information from the state’s grape growers.

According to the USDA, Michigan’s acreage of wine grapes planted also doubled over the past decade, from 1,300 acres to 2,600; the jam and juice sector of grapes remained where it was a decade ago, at about 12,000 acres.

The growth in acres and volume bottled is all in the fine wine category. Very little of Michigan’s wine-grape harvest goes into so-called jug wines. Almost all wines here are small-batch, cold climate, fine-wine reds and whites, grown in Michigan’s four official federally designated wine regions: Berrien, Van Buren, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties.

The reputation of Michigan wines also has spread in the last decade through national and international wine competitions, where both whites and reds are taking top prizes every year. Michigan wines are, in many ways, more highly respected and recognized outside Michigan than at home.

“This [USDA] data confirms the steady growth of the wine industry,” says Gordon Wenk, deputy director of Michigan’s Department of Agriculture & Rural Development.

It’s no surprise that riesling still leads the way here, as it has for decades, with nearly 600 acres planted — more than double the acreage planted with the grape in 2002.

The surprise, however, is in pinot noir, which vaulted past chardonnay into second place. Pinot noir is one of the fastest-growing reds elsewhere in the country, and cold-climate versions from lesser-known regions and small producers, often called “boutique” wines, have led the fine red-wine upsurge in the $20-to-$50 range.

Chadonnay, which still doubled in acreage in Michigan during the decade, despite losing its second-place ranking, is now followed by pinot gris and cabernet franc in the number of acres planted. Those are up threefold.

The USDA report notes that the expansion of the industry now includes many small, almost experimental-sized wine properties of 10 acres or fewer in Allegan, Antrim, Benzie, Cass, Charlevoix, Jackson, Lenawee, Oceana, Sanilac, and Washtenaw counties. And to think it wasn’t all that long ago that Michigan’s bigger winery counties were considered experimental.

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