Winemakers in southwest Michigan are calling 2012 a “vintage year” for wine.

“It was incredibly spectacular, considering how the year was for the rest of the food industry,” says Joe Herman, owner and operator of Karma Vista Vineyards and Winery and Herman Farms, both in Coloma.

The season started early when 80-degree March days woke Michigan’s fruit orchards and vineyards. But then a killer frost clobbered many of the budding fruits, involving a bout 95 percent of Michigan’s juice grape crops, used especially by Welch’s.

Luckily, wine grapes “break bud” later than other fruits and they escaped the frost. They still budded earlier than normal though, which led to a longer growing season.

“We’ve raised grapes for 15 years. This was the best (harvest), we’ve ever seen,” Herman says, explaining that the summer drought, which damaged or decimated many other crops, created even better conditions for the grapes. Higher heat and less moisture meant fewer diseases, less rot and mold, and a sweeter taste.

“They always tell you in a dry year you lose sleep and in a wet year, you lose money,” he says.

Herman’s two businesses are part of a growing industry in Michigan. In the past decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture[1] reports that the state’s wine grape acreage has risen from 1,300 to 2,650 acres. The state usually ranks between fifth and eighth in the nation for wine grape production, depending on the weather, and wineries contribute $300 million annually to the state’s economy, according to the Michigan Grape and Wine Industy Council.

While there are several wine regions in Michigan, 45 percent of the state’s wine grapes are grown in southwest Michigan.

“People often ask how we can grow grapes here,” says Matthew Moersch, winemaker and distiller at Round Barn Winery in Baroda. He explains that vineyards near Lake Michigan benefit from the “lake effect,” which protects the vines with snow in the winter and retards bud break in the spring, helping to avoid frost damage. And, unlike growers in other wine regions of the world, Michigan growers do not have to irrigate because the state gets plenty of rain.

Last year, “we had a larger crop than usual,” he says. Round Barn took in 200 tons of grapes, compared with its usual 120 to 130 tons. But he adds that it’s difficult to say how much of that increase can be attributed to the weather, since Round Barn took in grapes from a few more vineyards than usual, adding another eight or nine acres to its total.

“We’ve actually had three exceptional years in a row,” he says. “Usually it’s hit or miss, but 2012 is what we would call a vintage year because of the length of the season.”

That means the season was a very high quality or one that should be noted, says Michael Merchant, winemaker at Tabor Hill Winery in Buchanan. Usually the year of a wine’s vintage is marked on the label.

“There are labeling laws that you have to adhere to,” he says. For example, at least 85 percent of a 2012 bottle of merlot must be produced from grapes grown in 2012. And he expects the 2012 wine to be pretty good.

While the volume of some the 17 wine grape varieties grown and used at Tabor Hill wasn’t what he would have liked, Merchant says, the quality was “some of the best” he’s seen in his more than 30 years in the field.

The frost and drought led to smaller grapes and fewer grape clusters last year, and many vineyard managers agree that helped improve the quality. In fact, most years growers try to manipulate these conditions. They remove 80 to 90 percent of the grape clusters to allow more air circulation — preventing rot and mold — and to allow the vine to concentrate on fewer fruits, which makes them sweeter.

Merchant remembers that in 1994 there was a 10-acre chardonnay and merlot vineyard that didn’t require pruning, but for a different reason. The vines had sustained a lot of winter damage and had no live primary buds and he couldn’t find any secondary or tertiary buds — wine grapes can bud two or three times, which is one of the reasons they survived the frost in 2012.

“It took about four years to bring that vineyard back,” he says, explaining that is the most severe damage he’s seen.

In relation, last year was almost “textbook perfect,” he says, though it had everyone “very, very nervous.”

While consumers will notice a difference in the flavor of the 2012 wine, they will not see massive increases in the price, Merchant says, explaining that competition in the national and global market keeps wine prices fairly stable.

References

  1. ^ U.S. Department of Agriculture (www.southbendtribune.com)

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