Bumper crop keeps Michigan wine flowing

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Just days before Thanksgiving, the last of the red wine grapes harvested at Fenn Valley Vineyards near Lake Michigan’s shoreline were machine pressed to remove seeds, skins and stems and transferred to stainless steel tanks for fermenting.

Jaque Miralda packages bottles of chardonnay at Fenn Valley Winery on Monday.

Running the chambourcin grapes through the pressing at the 240-acre estate near Saugatuck marked the end of the harvest for Fenn Valley, one of Michigan’s oldest wineries. They’ll eventually be bottled as their own varietal and also as part of a blend, which Fenn Valley calls Capriccio.

“It was a pretty bountiful season,” said Matthew Jannette, associate winemaker at Fenn Valley Vineyards. “We had a nice long, dry summer so we have high sugar levels and decent acidity. We’ve got great aromatic character in all our grapes. We have very good vintage for the season.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many winemakers across the state, from Suttons Bay to St. Joseph and from Petoskey to Port Huron. A heatwave in mid-September — a few weeks of hot, sunny days — transformed a lackluster crop into a bumper harvest, with many wineries picking higher volumes of red and white varietals than the previous year.

Bel Lago, with vineyard manager Tomas Moreno Jr., processed 161 tons of grapes this year.

“There was a lot of concern over the summer because it was cool and not conducive to an exceptional vintage,” said Karel Bush, program manager for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. “Then we got that way-warmer-than-normal weather in September and finished the season out beautifully. The juice coming off the season seems to be pretty promising.”

This fall marks the second year in a row of plentiful grapes for the state’s wineries. That’s continued good news for an industry that was ravaged by two dismal, back-to-back harvests, in 2014 and 2015. Consecutive winters with the polar vortex and other weather-related issues hindered the wine grape crops those years. Some vintners, especially in northwestern Michigan, were forced to buy grapes from out of state to supplement their production.

Bel Lago still has red wine fermenting — some 30 bins.

The 2017 harvest wraps up on the heels of a recently released study about the economic impact of Michigan’s burgeoning wine (and cider) industry. The study, conducted by John Dunham & Associates for the wine industry council and the first one done since 2005, deems the overall economic impact at $5.4 billion annually — a figure that includes not only the business of wineries and cideries but also their impact on wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and bars, and tourism spending. That’s up from $300 million in 2005 when the industry was much younger.

In all, the state is home to 132 wineries with 3,050 acres devoted to growing wine grapes. Michigan wineries bottle about 2.7 million gallons of wine a year, making the state fifth in wine production in the U.S. About 1.7 million people visit the state’s wineries each year, contributing more than $252 million in tourism spending.

“None of it was all that shocking to me,” Bush said. “We knew the industry was growing, and there was a lot more tourism. The $5.4 billion figure was higher than I expected, but that was a pleasant surprise. The impact of the industry extends well beyond just the winery or the vineyard. It impacts so many people in so many ways.”

In northwest Michigan, home to more than 50 wineries, the unexpected summer heat wave was a welcome guest after a chilly, rainy summer.

“The heat wave completely changed the vintage,” said Charles Edson, owner and winemaker at Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery near Cedar on the Leelanau Peninsula. “I was never worried about the white (grapes). They tend to ripen a little earlier. I was concerned about the reds until we got that heat wave. We had two and half weeks of spectacular weather. You could walk down rows in the vineyard and see the difference.”

Fenn Valley produces about 50,000 cases of wine a year.

Edson, who grows 100 different varieties of wine grapes on 32 acres, including pinot grigio, pinot noir and riesling, said his harvest started in late September, a few weeks later than normal, and continued through mid-November. In all, Bel Lago processed 161 tons of grapes this year, up from 144 tons in 2016.

“I think everyone’s pretty excited about the season,” he said. “I have tasted young wines in the tanks, and I’m pretty impressed by what I’ve tasted.”

The prolonged harvests also mean Bel Lago still has red wine fermenting — some 30 bins — unusual so late in the season.

“We’ve never had to worry about people working in the cellar during the Thanksgiving holiday,” he said. “We do this year.”

Black Star Farms, which grows wine grapes on both the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas near Traverse City, harvested about 750 tons of grapes this fall, up from a typical year of 600 to 650 tons. The winery, which produces about 30,000 cases of wine a year, grows a variety of grapes, its signatures including riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc and merlot.

This fall Black Star Farms was also the home of a new tool in the Michigan winemaker’s effort to improve the quality of red wines.

Called Flash Detente, the technology minimizes negative components, such as harsh tannins and less developed flavors and colors, helping produce better quality red wine. During the process, known as thermovinification, crushed and destemmed grapes are flash heated to 180 degrees and the pressure ruptures the skins. The process is intended to accentuate the positive qualities of wine, including color.

Michigan winemakers are looking forward to evaluating the wines that went through the Flash Detente process this year.

“It’s one more tool in the toolbox of a winemaker to help realize the best wine he or she can possibly make,” said Lee Lutes, head winemaker at Black Star Farms.

In southwest Michigan, the owners of Round Barn Winery and Tabor Hill Winery near Benton Harbor-St. Joseph, harvested 460 tons of red and white grapes, including cabernet franc, riesling, sauvignon blanc, vignoles, lemberger and gewurtztraminer. The wineries cull grapes from about 110 acres for three brands; the other is Free Run.

“The quality is quite good. I am quite pleased,” said Brian Carlson, winemaker for the three brands who came to Michigan after years of working at wineries in Washington State. “We got a fair amount of rain during the harvest, but we were able to let the ground and fruit dry out before we picked. Our crop load was down in some areas but not all. But the quality overall is very good.”

Fenn Valley, which produces about 50,000 cases a year, also enjoyed a better-than-average growing season. The harvest began later than usual — thanks to the unusually warm weather — and wrapped up mid-November. The winery was forced to leave some grapes on the vines because of lack of tank space.

Fenn Valley, which began operations in 1973, harvested about 1,000 tons of fruit from its 110 acres of vineyards and from other growers. The company also produces about 400,000 gallons of hard cider each year.

“A lot of our growers came in with fruit above projections,” he said. “We brought in some new growers this year, and some of their vines maturity and were producing more. It was a better-than-average harvest. We’re pretty happy about it.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.