For Michigan wines, 2020 could be a year to savor

From a year to forget will come a variety of Michigan wines to…

For Michigan wines, 2020 could be a year to savor
For Michigan wines, 2020 could be a year to savor 1

Greg Tasker
 |  Special to The Detroit News

From a year to forget will come a variety of Michigan wines to remember.

Those 2020 wines, which will begin showing up on store shelves and in tasting rooms in a few weeks, are looking good to very good, according to winemakers, winery owners and others with an interest in the state’s growing wine industry.

The buzz about the 2020 vintage began even before the fall harvest was in full swing, with winemakers gleeful about the cooperative weather and the above average number of growing days. Some are comparing the year to 2016 and 2017, both of which had above average number of growing days and produced memorable wines. 

“I am expecting layered wines with great aromas and excellent aging potential,” says Bryan Ulbrich, winemaker at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City. The winery grows grapes on both the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas outside Traverse City as well as Benzie County. “I have a lot of optimism because we had ample sugar ripeness and flavor ripeness, even though it cooled off in the fall and rained on us in October.”

Ulbrich expects the first of his 2020 wines — pinot grigio and a blaufrankisch rosé (his 2017 vintage won Best of Class in the 2018 Michigan Wine Competition) to be out in May or June. He’s also enthusiastic about the potential of his pinot blanc, sparkling wines and kerner, an aromatic white wine grape. 

Expect to see other wineries release white varietals — chardonnay, pinot blanc, riesling — and rosés, to name a few, in the spring.

Mother Nature gets credit for the 2020 vintage. Yearlong consistent weather helped produce an abundant crop of white and red wine grapes. For the most part, spring was normal with no late frosts. The summer was warm and sunny; with no torrential rains or storms to speak of. And the fall, despite stretches of rain, remained warm and passed without any early frosts.

“I think (2020) was a really good year for wine grapes,” says Timothy Miles, assistant professor of grape pathology at Michigan State University. “There were good environmental conditions. It was really mild weather — not too hot. It was warm enough to ripen fruit late season and disease pressure was pretty low in most cases.”

Wines from the 2020 harvest are resting in stainless steel tanks or wooden barrels, being monitored by vintners. Many wineries will begin bottling white wines and rosés before winter’s end. Reds will remain in barrels for aging. 

“I’ve been hearing a lot of great buzz about the 2020 vintage from the majority of the wineries I’ve been spoken to so far,” says Cortney Casey, who, along with her husband, Shannon, owns and operates Michigan by the Bottle shops and tasting rooms in Metro Detroit. The stores showcase wines from about 20 wineries in Michigan.

Casey, who is also a sommelier, said the reports she receives from many wineries is that tank samples confirm what they suspected from the fruit at harvest: 2020 is going to be a delicious vintage. She’s also hearing good predictions about the reds.

“Based on the feedback across the board, I’m looking forward to all of it,” she said.

What will make 2020 stand out for many are the quality red wines. The sunny, warm weather and extended growing season enabled red varietals like cabernet franc, merlot and pinot noir to reach full maturity and optimum ripeness levels. The growing season the year before — 2019 —  was short and a cool, rainy fall prevented the reds from reaching full maturity. Many vintners used their red wine grapes to make rosés.

“It certainly was a great reserve year,” said Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of the family-run Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn on Old Mission Peninsula, referring to the higher quality of red wine grapes that will be aged to make reserve wines. “Some years when it’s too cold we don’t get to make those reserve wines. This was a great year with plenty of heat. This could be a stand out year for our cabernet franc and pinot noir.”

Dalese, whose winery produces about 24,000 cases of wine a year, expects the first 2020 releases — chardonnay, pinot grigio, riesling — to show up in the tasting room in the spring, depending on the inventory of the previous vintages.

In southwest Michigan, home to the second largest concentration of wineries in the state, winemaker Wally Maurer is giddy about the 2020 vintage.

“It’s going to be a great vintage,” says Maurer, who owns Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs. “We had no bad winter events. No spring issues. The grapes jumped out of the ground. They were ready to go and Mother Nature gave us the sun.”

Maurer is especially excited about his reds, including cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and syrah. Maurer was the first winery in Michigan to grow syrah and one of a few in the state to grow cabernet sauvignon, more closely associated with warmer climates.  He doesn’t expect his reds, which sit about a year in barrels, to be released for another 18 to 24 months. 

Domaine Berrien will begin rolling out a selection of white wines — chardonnay, riesling and vignoles, a hybrid grape — in the spring.

“There’s not a bad one in the bunch,” Maurer said. “When you start drinking the wines from 2020, they’re going to be solid. When we have a great year like 2020, everybody wins.”

On the Leelanau Peninsula, outside Traverse City, Laurentide Winery’s Bill Braymer rates the 2020 harvest as “excellent,” despite rather poor weather in October, which hastened grape picking for some wineries. That cool, rainy weather curtailed what otherwise would have been an exceptional year for Michigan wineries. 

“It still turned out to be a very good vintage in my opinion,” says Braymer, whose Lake Leelanau winery produces about 2,000 cases a year. 

He’s thrilled about the possibilities of his reds.  Laurentide did not produce any red wines in 2019 and has not made a pinot noir since 2015. His future red releases include a 2020 Meritage, a Bordeaux-style blend of estate-grown cabernet franc and merlot, and a 2020 Pinot Noir. The pinot noir could be released as early as the fall. 

“This was a year to take advantage of the ripeness of the fruit and the maturity of the vines and with less pressure from animals and insects to make these great wines,” Braymer says. “I’m really excited.”

Among his white wines, Braymer is eager to bottle his 2020 Sauvignon Blanc which his customers refer to as “Michigan’s Sauvignon Blanc.” He also uses sauvignon blanc, which last year achieved the highest sugar levels he’s ever seen, to produce a Fume Blanc, a lightly oaked wine that earned 95 points at the 2020 International Eastern Wine Competition. 

It’s growing years like 2020 that showcase the possibilities and consistent quality of Michigan wines, Left Foot Charley’s Ulbrich says. 

“These types of vintages show our potential, which is exciting because these are going to be very good wines,” Ulbrich says. “This is not a unicorn vintage. This is what we do year in and year out. 2020 is a good example of why Michigan is a great place to grow grapes.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City–based freelance writer who writes frequently about Michigan’s wine industry.

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