A Sneak Peek at Michigan Wine Harvest

Mother Nature. She’s gorgeous, fickle, tumultuous and, when all the stars align, nurturing. As we Michiganders know, her climate swings dramatically impact our agriculture.

Mother Nature. She’s gorgeous, fickle, tumultuous and, when all the stars align, nurturing. As we Michiganders know, her climate swings dramatically impact our agriculture. Apple production is high, so hard apple cider and apple brandy will be plentiful. How will this year’s wine grape vintage shine? Here’s a preview from around the state.

Northern Region

Winemaker Sean O’Keefe of his family-owned Chateau Grand Traverse says his early ripening varieties, like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner are “looking great,” and Chardonnay should be a very good vintage. “Riesling is a given. It should be nice and tart this year.” He is keeping an eye on late ripening varieties, like Cabernet Franc, whose veraison has been impacted by July’s unseasonably cool and very dry month. Accordingly, he is thinning his crops. As one of the largest wine producers in northern Michigan, he’s a busy man. O’Keefe and his team harvest 120 acres of estate vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City, as well as an additional 90 contract grower vineyards. Only a handful of acres of Riesling will remain on the vines with the hope of an ideal ice wine harvest in December or January.

So, best-case weather scenario within next month? “We need it to not frost out,” says O’Keefe. “If we have a fairly warm and medium dry month and a half, the later ripening varieties should be fine. Every year is a little bit different. This time of year is a nail biter for (vintners) and late ripening varietals. That’s why we have a lot of Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc.”

One red that is always reliable from season to season is Gamay Noir, which was first planted on the vineyard estate in 1989. “It’s a lighter red that is really in with sommeliers, and it really likes to grow here.” Its success has prompted the O’Keefes to plan an additional five acres next spring to jump acreage to thirteen.

Leelanau Wine Cellars General Manager Tony Lentych says it’s still too early to call on most varietals in the Omena vineyards, many impacted by July’s cooler temperatures in the region. Lentych is optimistic for whites: “We think this year will be ideal for our Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay.”

Southwest Michigan

“Harvest is right on schedule this year,” says Vintner Doug Welsch of Fenn Valley Vineyards. “This looks like a great year for white wines.” It’s still a bit early to celebrate a particular varietal, though Welsch says, “Pinot Grigio and Riesling are looking very good.”

Harvest is underway for Welsch’s 63 estate acres, 30 contract acres, and six additional acres for another farm. The winery will process about 400 tons this fall. And, if all goes well, will process iced grapes this winter for Vidal ice wine.

“This looks to be a textbook winemaking year with no real challenges visible at this time,” says Welsch. “The warmth has lowered acidity of most varietals and the pH levels are all in line.”

More than 500 acres of grower and estate vineyards are bustling with harvest activity for St. Julian Wine Company. Winemaker Nancie Oxley of St. Julian Winery says they started harvesting Sauvignon Blanc from the estate vineyard on August 28.

“It’s the first crop year, so the crop is light, but so far the grapes look great and the wine smells amazing,” says Oxley in regard to Sauvignon Blanc. Albariño, believed to be the first commercial planting of this varietal in Michigan, is undergoing its second harvest. “The clusters are just starting to turn golden in color and the flavors from the grapes are so powerful!” Oxley is excited to release this vintage after the 2012 garnered a gold medal at the Michigan Wine and Spirit Competition this year.

Oxley is seeing high acid levels in the grapes and outstanding color in the reds – with the plan to let them hang on the vines to further develop their flavors. Warm days and cool nights are what make Michigan an ideal state for growing cool-climate wines. “With the dry July weather, the berries are quite small, making the flavors and color quite intense.” says Oxley.

On a relevant note, Oxley will be recognized on October 10 by Purdue University, her alma mater, with an “Outstanding Food Science Award,” for her leadership in the wine industry. Oxley is one of only a few female winemakers in the state.

Southeast Region

Harvest is just getting started for Vintner Kip Barber of Lone Oak Vineyard Estate in Grass Lake. Heavy rains in this area prompted the grapes to ripen a bit ahead of schedule. Barber and his team will harvest 23 acres of grapes within the next month. He’s particularly excited about the abundance of Gewürztraminer. “The clusters are very high quality. The flavor profile I’ve tasted is wonderful,” says Barber. Chardonnay has beautifully ripened as well.

His big reds, like Cabernet and Merlot, are tasting of high tannins and will likely be ready for harvest in mid-October. “We have a really nice crop of Zinfandel,” says Barber, who plans to continue blending Zinfandel and Pinot Noir to make a slightly sweet “Zino Noir,” a customer favorite. New this year, he’ll blend the two varietals to make a drier style wine, which he plans to call, “Zino Evil.”

Lake Huron Region

Representing Michigan’s sunrise side, Vintner Connie Currie of Blue Water Winery and Vineyards says they’ll be harvesting 16 of the 20 acres planted in Carsonville. This first varietal planned for harvest is Zweigelt, “an Austrian grape that wakes up late and ripens early – perfect,” says Currie.

“I am most excited about working with Grüner Veltliner for a second (vintage),” says Currie. “I want to pick it earlier this year and see if the grape behaves the same as last year.” Currie and her husband Steve Velloff are hosting two volunteer harvests on October 12 and October 19. The October 12 event has been deemed, “Harvest for the Hounds,” a fundraiser for the Humane Society. For the October 19 event, the winery has teamed with young adult 4-Hers through the Sanilac Career Center. A win-win for Currie who says they get to meet potential future employees and the students learn about wine grape growing while earning pay.

Michigan winemakers are digging in from harvest’s earliest tasks to full-on action. Now, let’s just hope Mother Nature behaves this next month until grapes are crushed, stored, and tucked away for winter.