Wine grape applellations from www.michiganwines.com

The last time we saw two, back-to-back winters with that kind of cold was in ’77 and ’78.  The modern Michigan wine industry was in its infancy then but those winters influenced the evolution of our industry. I went to MSU to work on my MS in Viticulture in 1983 and my thesis project was to determine the influence of rootstock on the cold hardiness of scions in Vitis vinifera cv. Riesling.  While I found little influence of the rootstock, the Riesling scion was found to be fairly cold tolerant among vinifera.  Even so, many growers would not plant vinifera back then because they felt that it was too cold in Michigan for those varieties to survive. 

Much of the work we were doing at MSU in the 80’s was evaluating resistant hybrid grape varieties for the Michigan wine industry. Resistant hybrids are crosses of European V. vinifera and American Vitis species. The crosses were originally made in France to battle the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800’s.  The hybrid varieties produced were not only resistant to phylloxera, they were also more cold resistant and had greater disease resistance than their vinifera parents.  With that knowledge growers and wineries felt they could produce superior wines using resistant hybrids and still have their vines over-winter.  And they were right.  To this day a significant portion of the wine grape acreage in Michigan is planted to resistant hybrids like Vidal blanc, Seyval blanc, Chambourcin, DeChaunac and Marechal Foch.  

Reisling grapes for White Pine Winery, grown in Lawton, MI

However, some enterprising entrepreneurs decided to go ahead and plant Riesling, Chardonnay and some other vinifera varieties that would be adapted to our climate and growing season.  Nay – sayers said it wouldn’t work but they were wrong!  The Riesling and Chardonnay produced outstanding wines that won awards in international competitions. More vinifera vineyards were planted and wine sales increased as did Michigan’s reputation for a world-class wine producing region. As our reputation grew, more people came to the area to make a name in the Michigan wine industry.  

Fast forward 20 years and the over half of the wine grape acreage in Michigan is planted to vinifera.  Many of the newcomers had never seen a truly cold winter with devastating vine damage.  To those of us who still cautioned that resistant hybrids be part of our industry, many newcomers scoffed and declared that “climate change” had made Michigan a different place where the old rules no longer applied.  It was hard to argue with that when we all had seen the mild winters and early springs of the past decade.  

Pinot Gris grapes from White Pine Winery's harvest in September 2012

Then came 2014 and 2015.  Many vineyards were killed outright.  The varieties in those plantings, like Syrah and Merlot, will not be replanted.  Either hardier vinifera or resistant hybrids will go on those vineyard sites.  The last two winters will mark a turning point for Michigan’s wine industry.  Growers and wineries will think twice about planting cold tender varieties except on the very best sites near Lake Michigan.  

There is already much renewed interest in cold resistant hybrids and the wine making techniques required to turn them into crowd pleasers (which has been done by many wineries including this one – right along).  Similar events have happened in Ontario and The Finger Lakes in New York.  The damaging events serve as a wake-up call to the industry that we are still in a continental maritime climate. If we have a cold winter and the Great Lakes freeze, then we lose the lake effect that protects the vines.  That obviously can still happen so we all must be prepared.  We must use caution in matching sites and varieties, and we must not ignore the facts about our climate.  

6.20CabernetFrancShoots 6.20CabFrancGrapes
Cabernet Franc springtime shoots and summer grapes; grown for White Pine Winery

Resistant hybrids make excellent wines that are affordable with less environmental impact than vinifera. However, more cold tolerant vinifera like Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet franc (to name a few) are able to grow here and make beautiful, world-class wines.  Even on the best sites they will get winter damage occasionally. With proper care the damage will typically be limited to one crop year and that can be worked into the cost of fruit and wine.

We are still firmly committed to wine making in Michigan and believe we have one of the last, best places for making wine that is still relatively undiscovered.  The industry will change for the better after the last two winters.  Stop by any local winery to taste what we have learned!

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