Northwest Michigan wine country — the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas around Traverse City — is as beautiful as you’d expect. Vineyards are interspersed among fruit orchards (yes, it’s cherry season!) and McMansions. Driving up the OMP, the Grand Traverse Bay is on your left one moment, then visible to the right the next. As you drive up the Leelanau, water is seemingly always “just over there”– either Lake Leelanau or Lake Michigan itself. All this water, and its moderating effect on temperature and climate, is a primary reason wine grapes grow so well here.
Until last winter, when Lake Michigan froze.
“We had two events of 19 hours when temperatures were 9 below or less, one in late February, then one less than a week later in early March,” explains Craig Cunningham, who manages several vineyards on both peninsulas. I met Craig, a wry, soft-spoken man with the ruddy complexion of a farmer, at Left Foot Charley winery during my tasting with Bryan Ulbrich.
“Then we had a long winter, and as the vines were losing their domancy in April, we had periods of 5 degrees,” Cunningham said. “The longer days didn’t help, and the snow cover was going down. That’s what sealed our fate.”
Today, in early August, the vineyards look lush, with lots of foliage. But you practically have to search for grapes. There simply aren’t many hanging on the vines, and the clusters I could see looked scrawny and appeared to this untrained eye to be ripening unevenly. The summer has been pleasantly mild, which hasn’t helped the remaining grapes to ripen.
Winemakers I spoke to over three days of winery visits told a similar story of bud loss to the extreme cold of the past winter. Most estimated they would be able to harvest about 30 percent of a normal crop this year. Bordeaux varieties were apparently hardest hit, with Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer taking strong losses as well. The damage varied across each peninsula according to site and proximity to the water, but the most optimistic estimate I heard was for 50 percent crop loss.
Strong winter winds magnified the cold and desiccated the vines, but heavy snows protected most of the trunks from suffering severe damage. And in at least one case, at Brengman Brothers winery on Leelanau, the wind helped by drifting snow up the slopes where their Gewurztraminer vines are planted.
“We had five-foot snow drifts on that slope, so it covered the fruiting zone of the vines,” explains Bob Brengman. They are expecting a normal crop of Gewurztraminer this year.
Hybrid grape varieties fared better than vinifera, but without evident trunk damage affecting the long-term outlook, I didn’t hear of anyone giving up on the European varieties. This is still Riesling country.
And Pinot Blanc country. And Pinot Noir. And don’t rule out Gruner Veltliner or Blaufrankisch. Or Gamay.