The upper Midwest is not known for having a “wine culture”.  Once upon a time the same could be said for the west coast of the United States.  In the last 30 years California has gone from a back-water in the wine world to a leader in the production of some of the worlds great wines.  During that time the people have gone from wine novices to connoisseurs.  The same thing is happening in Michigan: we are becoming known for the quality of our wines so people are coming here, learning about wine and becoming connoisseurs.

 There are certain things one must know in order to really understand wine.  

The first and probably most important is that different wines are made from different grape varieties.  I am often asked what makes Merlot different from Cabernet franc?  They are two, different varieties of grapes. The flavor, aroma, tannins and color of the wines are determined by the grape variety and, to a lesser extent, by wine making technique. So just as Concord and Niagara grapes are different varieties, so too, Cabernet sauvignon and Riesling are different grape varieties.  To get each variety of grape and winery or grower order vines of the desired variety from a nursery and then plants and raises those vines.  Once the vines begin to produce fruit it is of the desired variety.

The grape varieties that perform best in a region are determined by the 1) the region’s  climate and, 2) the growing requirements of the variety.  The difference in the time for grapes to ripen from the earliest varieties to the latest can be as much as 6 to 8 weeks.  So in an area with a short, cool growing season like northern Michigan, only those varieties that ripen early will be able to mature and make good wine.

In contrast, a region with a long, warm growing season will over – ripen short season varieties producing low quality wine from them.  Rather, late – ripening varieties will perform best in the warmer region.  The University of California at Davis ranks grape growing regions into five climate zones based on the length of the growing season and heat accumulation. Zone 1 is a cool, short season like Champagne or Northern Germany; Zone 5 is a hot, long season like Bakersfield, California or central Spain.

Dr. Dave Miller is the owner of White Pine Winery, and a professor of Viticulture at MSU.