Cold Shoulder

A brutal winter and unfavorable summer temperatures put a chill on the 2014 wine grape crop

Last year’s nasty winter, particularly from January to March, was followed by an amazingly chilly summer. That combination has come close to kneecapping Michigan’s 2014 grape crop.

Some wineries are now trying to figure out exactly what they can or should release this year, or if there is enough wine to even make a 2014 vintage from some varieties.

The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council’s Chairman Gordon Wenk said the 2014 yield will be about only half the 7,600 tons of the previous year’s crop, which set a state record.

A report by the council adds a positive note: The saving grace under all of the bad news is that 2012 and 2013 yielded such huge bumper crops and good wines, there will be enough from those vintages to keep shelves stocked and cover the 2014 shortfall.

In addition to the cold winter, the rest of the growing season was one of the coolest and wettest in the recent past, says Keith Mason of Michigan State University Extension. He says the result “made management of diseases and insect pests very challenging for some growers.”

“I couldn’t fill a coffee can with what I got out of my 40 acres,” said a dismayed winery owner at a recent council meeting. That might be an exaggeration, but it speaks to the feelings of many in the industry this year.

“Severe cold … resulted in damage to grapevines that reduced fruitfulness for many of the more cold-tender varieties used for wine production in Michigan,” the report states.

Particularly vulnerable to deep cold are varieties most recently planted in Michigan, grapes from the vinifera varieties — such as merlot, chardonnay, cabernet franc, and pinot noir. They suffered the most loss.

Michigan now grows about 40 different kinds of grapes, including some of the more weather-hardy Germanic grapes like riesling and gewürztraminer. But even some of those ended the year limping along with the lack of sun and hot weather for ripening.

The council’s report said that the temperature dipped 5 degrees below zero for three days in early January in the southwestern-area Berrien and Van Buren grape-growing counties, but missed Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties near Traverse City. Those counties were hit hard in February, by which time Lake Michigan was 90 percent frozen, too cold for the annual protection blanket from what is called the “lake effect” to occur.

The lake effect is a shoreline blanket of warmer air that rises from lake water in the winter and in less harsh winters will protect crops from too much cold. Once the lake freezes, that warmer air from the water cannot rise.

All this has left a lot of winemakers scratching their heads about how to cope with not much wine and very lean flavors and excessive acid in what they do have instead of plump, sweet, and rich fruit.

Many wineries are expecting that they will have to buy much, perhaps most, of their grapes from other states and label the wines simply as American table wine, which they can do legally. Most of the wine made in Michigan is grown in the four official “appellations” in the state, designated by the federal government.

Here’s hoping the polar vortex doesn’t make a return engagement in 2015.