It's harvest time, so we figured it was an excellent time to put in a call to Linda Jones of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council to see how our state's wineries were getting along. Although the harvest just began, Jones let us know that some of the factors playing into our wineries' productivity began with the state's absolutely hellacious winter. In fact, unbeknownst to all but the most engaged Michigan-wine drinkers, a kind of drama has played out over three seasons, with important ramifications.
"We had a lot of winter damage last February and March, due to severe cold weather. The crop is about 50 percent of size it normally is. It will have no noticeable impact on the average consumer, because wineries can draw on previous vintages. Wine isn't like an apple, where you sell it and pick it within a few weeks. Wines for sale right now were harvested in 2011 and 2012, which shows that wine has a long inventory shelf life. This year's short harvest will not hit store shelves until 2015-2017, and 2012-2013 left good inventories."
While that's a relief, the winter, including a complete freeze-over of Lake Michigan as far north as Traverse City, caused a reduction in quantity because of damage to the precious perennial vines, by 50 percent on average, with more damage to tender varieties and less to hardier. This year's gentle summer didn't help matters.
"The challenge for growers," Jones told us, "is what buds are left on vines have to be ripened. And you want a hot dry summer to get maximum quality. We didn't get the heat accumulating in the vineyards that we prefer to ripen the fruit for optimum quality." Which means that, right now, Michigan winemakers are strategizing on how to make best quality wine with the fruit they have.
If you're a fan of Traverse-area rieslings (like we are), the good news is that the cold-hardy vine native to Northern Germany did not experience a lot of damage. There's still time, too, for those late-harvest rieslings with their higher sugar content to ripen, if conditions are dry and warmer than usual as we head into late November. Such wines will likely be hitting shelves in seven or eight months, and may be harder to get than usual.