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March 18, 2013

Michigan wineries raise a toast to 2012

While many Michigan fruit growers curse 2012, the state’s wineries offer a toast.

Last March, temperatures spiked to 80 degrees. The bitter-cold weather that followed wiped out much of the state’s fruit crops. The one exception ­– wine grapes.

Michigan has already established itself as a wine destination, and 2012 will certainly further the state’s premier status, said Paolo Sabbatini, Michigan State University assistant professor of viticulture.

“The quality of grapes last year was exceptional, perfect ripening conditions of the fruit allowed several grape varieties to perfectly express all their varietal characteristics,” he said. “Much of the fruit harvested last year will produce reserve-quality wine.”

Surprisingly, one of the biggest contributors to earning the coveted reserve status, bestowed to only the best wines, was the drought. Since wine grapes bud later than most fruit, they avoided the damage caused by the April freeze. March’s early warm spell, however, did give them an early start. The longer growing season, combined with the hot and dry summer, gave the grapes more time to fully ripen to levels that are pivotal for the production of quality wines.

“The early drought was actually beneficial to the vines; it reduced berry size and canopy growth – two factors that are fundamentally important for fruit quality. Reduced berry size concentrates flavor and aromas and vine growth was reduced, improving canopy microclimate and overall efficiency,” Sabbatini said. “Grapes in southwest Michigan experienced a season quite similar to those in California’s Napa Valley for heat accumulation or growing degree days.”

Not only is Michigan improving in quality, but it also has increased its quantity. Michigan’s wine grape acreage has doubled within the last decade, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Overall, acreage of wine grapes increased from 1,300 to 2,650 acres. The top five varieties of grapes include Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc.

Many of these varieties and several clones were introduced and tested in collaboration with the industry by Sabbatini’s predecessor, G. Stanley Howell, MSU professor emeritus of horticulture.

“For more than 40 years, MSU has worked closely with Michigan’s growers to conduct successful trials of grapes and to identify varieties that will thrive in our climate,” he said. “The challenge in Michigan and across the U.S. is matching the right variety with the right site, which will be more and more important, especially as our climate changes.”

For more information about how MSU and Sabbatini are working to further the state’s status a wine destination, visit Spartans Will. 360.

By: Layne Cameron

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