This year’s grape crop, in both Michigan and Wisconsin, is going to be more about quality than quantity. Spring frost/freeze events decimated entire vineyards, stunted some, and left others unharmed.
“It was all about location and elevation,” said Tyson Lemon, vice president of sales and customer relations for GreenStone Farm Credit Services. He and other growers across the state are anticipating a slightly below-average yielding crop.
Lemon’s family farm includes about 30 different varieties of wine grapes and a few juice grapes on 180 acres in Berrien Springs, Michigan. About 80% of the grapes grown are sold to wineries in the Midwest, while the remainder is utilized in their own winery.
“We have three main farms that divide our production in thirds,” he said. “In two of those three farms, we will have almost a full crop, while on a third farm, which is not next to the others, we have nothing. So, it’s very site specific.”
Most of the growers ran heaters and frost fans to help mitigate those low temperatures.
“But at a certain point, Mother Nature wants to get cold, and there's not much you can do,” he said.
On the quality side, Lemon said grapes rely on heat to build quality and brix production. “We’ve had a very hot summer – they like this heat,” he added.
Those are just predictions, Lemon points out, as we enter a critical time in the growing season.
In general, the northwest Michigan vintage is highly dependent on September weather conditions, according to Esmaeil Nasrollahiazar, Michigan State University Viticulture Extension educator. “If we get hot and dry weather, the vintage will be excellent. On the other hand, excessive precipitation with high relative humidity will result in medium to low quality.”
Veraison is when the grapes turn from green to red and naturally begin to sweeten, while white grapes sweeten and become more translucent.
“Veraison is starting and most grape varieties are softening, and their acid levels are dropping,” explained Nasrollahiazar. “Veraison is also the time for crop adjustment work. This technique reduces fruit ripening variability by removing green fruit that is behind in maturation (selected at the late-veraison stage), allowing for uniform ripeness at harvest for optimal wine quality.”
Lately, Lemon said much of the state has had a lot of heavy dews and a lot of humidity, which creates a good environment for things like powdery and downy mildew to take hold. Management, including thinning, hedging, shoot positioning and leaf pulling, are done to expose the fruit to sunlight and to aid in veraison. “All of those activities open up the vines to make it easier to get fungicide sprays in to control downy and powdery mildew.”
In comparison to the 2020 growing season, northwest Michigan vineyards are experiencing more disease pressure, such as black rot and downy mildew in 2021 due to extensive rain distribution and high relative humidity,” added Nasrollahiazar, noting that both can rot fruit.
While disease is now becoming an issue, Lemon said a dry spring kept the disease and insect pressure at bay early on.
Once into September and October, when brix levels go up, animal pressure also goes up. Balloons with eyes drawn on them, foil stringers, propane-powered cannons, and bird noise makers help keep animals – mainly birds – away.
Craig Carpenter grows eight varieties of wine grapes on 12 acres just 20 miles southeast of Madison, Wisconsin. He also has about 200 table grape plants. Carpenter is the president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association.
He thinks about 25% to 35% of the grape crop, which is about 95% to 97% wine grapes in Wisconsin, was lost to frost/freeze events this spring. “The damage varied across the state, which is a relative newcomer to growing grapes compared to Michigan,” he said. “The lower-lying areas were a lot more affected by frost than the higher elevations.”
It killed many of the primary flowering portions of the vine, Carpenter reported. “Vines will put out a secondary bud, and you’ll get some grapes, but a couple things arise when that happens,” he adds. “The grapes never ripen at the same time – the secondary buds lag behind the primary buds. So, you might end up with two harvests, which isn't good.”
Like Lemon, Carpenter is interested in the bird recordings to scare away predators. “We’re going to try that this year in addition to some netting,” he said. “The bird calls, which have been used in some Western states, is a recording broadcast on speakers sending out a bird distress call, followed by the sound of a falcon or hawk.”
Grapes are the fastest growing, per capita crop in Wisconsin. To continue to grow the industry, Carpenter said it will need to work together as a group and try to secure grants to fund more viticulture and enology positions that can provide more research and education.
In Wisconsin, there are currently over 200 vineyards growing over 1,400 acres of 34 different hybrid varietals, as reported by the Mid-West Farm Report in 2020.
Because Wisconsin does not have Michigan's lake shore effect, growers in the Badger state are limited on the varieties of grapes that will survive the colder climate.
Marquette is a cold-hardy favorite in Wisconsin, producing a flavor similar to its vinifera cousin, pinot noir. Other popular varieties include Frontenac gris, petite pearl and La Crescent – all high in acidity and producing an array of flavors.
Wisconsin's best vineyard sites can be found in areas where there is a large body of water to provide warmth in winter and cooling influences in the hot summers. The two sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) located entirely within Wisconsin, Lake Wisconsin and Wisconsin Ledge, are both located near lakes, and as a result, have longer growing seasons than the more-inland parts of the state.
According to the Small Fruit and Hops Inventory conducted by United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Michigan wine grape acreage increased. Riesling continues to be the most planted wine grape in Michigan, and there are currently 670 Riesling acres in the state. Other grapes with notable acreage include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc.
Currently there are 10,900 acres of grapes grown in the Michigan, with 3,375 acres in wine grapes, and 175 wineries in the state with lots of room for growth, according to Jenelle Jagmin, director or the Michigan Craft Beverage Council.
“Michigan is not anywhere near a saturation point,” Jagmin said. “In fact, it just continues to grow and thrive.”
While some businesses were really impacted by COVID-19, Michigan wineries got creative and used innovation to power through. “Many took advantage of agritourism, and at a time when people were trying to distance themselves, wineries were creating safe environments outside,” Jagmin said.
Some went to reservation only, offered curbside pickup and online sales. “Wineries expanded their spaces outside, some with tents and lights and really experienced above average traffic last year – even making new customers.” Past the COVID era, we expect many of those practices to continue.”
“We're seeing growth in traditional Michigan varieties like Riesling and Chardonnay, but also growth in some other interesting grape varietals, including Lemberger, which is central European grape that is grown in parts of Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia and Serbia – grapes that do well in that part of the world also do really well in Michigan,” Jagmin said.
Michigan is also seeing growth in cold-hardy hybrids, which has opened more growing areas for wine grapes that don’t benefit from the lake effect. For instance, the Tip Of The Mitt is Michigan's newest American Viticultural Areas, which are federally designated areas where the wines produced exhibit similar characteristics that are distinct from other regions. Qualities like soil type, climate and the like can play a role in the wines that result. There are currently five AVAs in the state.
Overall, the season looks bright, even though there were some regional challenges, with parts of the state getting more than five inches of rain in a few days, while other areas sustained hail damage. “Right now, it's looking like a pretty sunny forecast, but it’s also a crucial time of the year, so growers are hesitant to make any harvest predictions,” Jagmin said.