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Michigan winemakers experiment to get the most out of their grapes

Photo courtesy of Michigan Wines

Michigan winemakers are exploring a variety of options to get the most out of their crops. They’re experimenting with growing hardier grapes to handle whatever curve balls Mother Nature throws.

Michigan is now the eighth largest wine grape growing state. The grapes we grow really have to like Michigan weather, no matter what happens. Right now we’ve got room to improve.
Paolo Sabbatini is with Michigan State University, and his mission is to help grapes thrive in Michigan.

"Every 10 years, you will get three years that will be very, very challenging. So, 30 percent of the time you are going to have problems in Michigan growing grapes or producing quality wines."

In March 2012, temperatures spiked at 80 degrees then plummeted with a series of hard freezes. Later in the season, a drought added to the devastation for almost all of Michigan’s fruit crops.

But Sabbatini says that crazy weather actually created terrific wine grapes.

"That’s the reason why the 2012 vintage will be one of the most important vintages that people will remember for the quality of our wines that winemakers are producing now and will be on the market soon."

He says the early weather didn’t bother wine grapes, since they start growing later, and the drought actually allowed flavors to intensify in the grapes.

So far this year, Sabbatini says we’ve had a more typical start to the season.

But he’s researching other ways to help winemakers succeed. He's exploring about 50 different varieties from regions in France, Italy, and Spain. He thinks they may do very well in Michigan’s climate.

He says growers are doing a couple of things to minimize the impact of Michigan’s rainy season. He says vineyards now plant cover crops to compete for water. That ensures vines don’t absorb too much moisture.

Another tactic he’s researching is leaf pinching. Grape growers pinch leaves to allow proper airflow and sun to reach grape clusters. This minimizes a fungus that can damage the berries.

Lee Lutes is head winemaker of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, Michigan. He says Sabbatini has suggested an Italian technique of partially drying the grapes to concentrate flavors.

It creates a wine called passito.

"It has a nice balance of alcohol and sometimes a little bit of an earthy, spicy element to it that’s pretty interesting. But it’s not really something that’s being done much in the U.S. at all."

Lutes sees a lot of potential in a new hybrid variety called the Marquette.

It was developed in Minnesota and combines the heartiness of wild red grapes with robust flavor and larger berries.

"It has great color. The key to it is that it’s very winter hearty and it tends to ripen in a short period of time."

Most of Michigan's wine grapes grow within 25 miles of Lake Michigan.

MSU’s Paolo Sabbatini says that "lake effect" protects the vines from snow in winter. It also retards bud break in spring - that helps avoid frost damage - and it extends the growing season by up to four weeks.

"When the grapes are going through the ripening process with these kinds of temperatures, especially the cool nights and the low temperatures in the fall, they maintain distinctive characters in the fruit that’s reflected in the wines."

Sabbatini says there’s room for Michigan’s wine industry to expand even more. He’s looking at some hybrid varieties that he says could allow grape growing in the Upper Peninsula to expand significantly.

-Chris Zollars, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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