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Back to the future: a historical viticulture perspective on the Michigan grape industry.


By looking back at history, we can track our origins and compare past patterns to better understand our current state. Modern technology can teach us new ways to do things, but it is history that tells us why we do them. Applying this model can help to analyze any industry--in this case the Michigan wine grape industry, one of the growing sectors of agricultural commodities in the state.

In 1970, Michigan was home to eight wineries and had less than 50 acres planted to wine grapes. During the next 45 years, a substantial expansion in wine grape plantings allowed this figure to reach 2,800 acres in 2014, and now, more than 164 bonded and virtual wineries are located across the state, according to Wines Vines Analytics. During this time, many changes have occurred in Michigan's two primary growing regions. Examining these patterns will offer a reflection on the history and environment of both growing areas as well as a prediction for their continued potential as premier wine grape growing regions.

Currently, Michigan has five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are established by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Two of these AVAs are situated in southwest (S.W.) Michigan: Fennville AVA (established 1981) and Lake Michigan Shore AVA (established 1983), and two are in northwest (N.W.) Michigan: Leelanau Peninsula AVA (established 1982) and Old Mission Peninsula AVA (established 1987). The fifth AVA, Tip ofthe Mitt AVA, was created in north central Michigan in 2016.

Michigan ranks fourth among all 50 states for total grapevine acreage. However, approximately 80% of this acreage is planted with Vitis labrusca (primarily Concord and Niagara), which are utilized by the grape juice industry. When only wine grape acreage is counted, Michigan places 10th in the United States. For this combination, along with significant pest- and disease-resistant cultivars, Michigan viticulture is considered "mixed viticulture," a situation often seen in Midwest grapegrowing states.

Data for this article was obtained from the 1991 and 1995 USDA Michigan Fruit Rotational Surveys and the 2000, 2003, 2006, 2011 and 2014 USDA Michigan Fruit Inventory. Because of its recent formation, Tip of the Mitt AVA acreage data was not included. The term "wine grapes" in this article refers to vinifera and resistant cultivars. Vitis labrusca cultivar acreage was excluded in this report, as their utilization for juice or wine production could not be distinguished.

Industry growth and vinifera acreage

There are distinct differences in the evolution of wine grape acreage and cultivars between the northwest and southwest AVAs. This is best highlighted during the decade between 1990 and 2000. In 1970, true wine grapes were introduced to Michigan vineyards as alternatives to labrusca cultivars. Wine grape acreage in the state has continued to increase steadily since 1970, and this growth is generally reflected by the total acreage in S.W. Michigan leading up to 1990, and by N. W Michigan after this date. Despite 600 acres of wine grapes being established in 1990 in the southwest, an increase in acreage was practically non-existent until after 2000.

This reflection is also seen in the evolution of Vitis vinifera and resistant cultivar acreage since 1970. Until 1990, wine production relied heavily on an expanding number of resistant cultivars, while there were few new vinifera plantings. Throughout the decade, the total number of resistant plantings in Michigan plateaued at ap proximately 600 acres, while vinifera acreage equaled that of resistant cultivars by the year 2000.

Since that period, resistant cultivars have grown slightly, while vinifera plantings have continued to increase exponentially. In 2014, Michigan had 2,100 acres of vinifera grapes, almost three times higher than the total acreage of resistant cultivars.

The initial increase of vinifera plantings in both northwest and southwest Michigan during the 1990s may be explained by rising temperatures during the previous decade (see "Evolution of Wine Grape Acreage in Michigan"). Average growing degree-days (GDDs) reached a peak in 1980 and were followed by conditions that were consistently suitable for growing vinifera cultivars. A similar pattern to that in "Wine Grape Acreage by Region and Type" is seen when accounting for the evolution of vinifera and resistant cultivar acreage between the two primary grapegrowing regions.

Starting in 1990, vinifera plantings in northwest Michigan began to grow rapidly and have continued to flourish. Resistant cultivars now comprise less than 5% of wine grape acreage. Acreage of resistant cultivars in southwest Michigan grew steadily from 1970 to 1990. However, plantings of vinifera have since comprised the majority of growth, and now each account for approximately 50% of the wine grape industry. Despite this recent change in growth, vinifera acreage in southwest Michigan is about one-third of that in the northwest part of the state, based on the voluntary responses to USDA surveys.

Cultivar consolidation and regional cultivar identity

Northwest and southwest Michigan are not only different in the ratio of cultivars planted but also in the total acreage of red and white vinifera cultivars. When total acreage is considered, northwest Michigan has more white and red vinifera cultivars than southwest. However, cropping level potential, based on historical averages, is different between the regions due to differences in GDD accumulation and growing season length. When potential cropping level is evaluated, northwest Michigan has almost four times the potential production of white vinifera wine grapes than the southwest, and both areas have essentially the same potential production of red vinifera. This is interesting given the difference in climate between northwest and southwest Michigan.

Southwest Michigan has, on average, 30% more GDDs than the Northwest, which translates to a growing season that is traditionally two weeks longer than in northwest Michigan. The differences in climate are divergent enough to suggest that the two northwest AVAs are classified under "region 1," while both southwest AVAs fall within "region 2," according to the Winkler climate region scale from 1-5 (Winkler et al, 1974). It is not only notable that northwest Michigan has significantly more white vinifera acreage, but also that northwest and southwest parts of the state share similar acreages of red vinifera cultivars, which typically favor warmer climates (regions 3-5), with Burgundian Pinot Noir being the most planted red cultivar.

This can be explained with the history of growing wine grapes in each region. At its inception, grape production in northwest Michigan had no previous history and therefore growers had no preconceived ideas regarding viticultural approaches in the vineyard. Initial vines were planted by wineries, so economics favored vertical integration of production: the vineyard-to-sales approach. There also developed a damage-tolerant philosophy by growers and wineries alike, a philosophy that was severely tested in back-to-back polar vortex-induced crop losses in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

The history of growing grapes in southwest Michigan, on the other hand, dates back to the late 19 th century, and early plantings of resistant cultivars were viticulturally integrated to the vineyard management style of established labrusca cultivars (Kegerreis and Hathaway, 2009). The initial success of wine grapes in both southwest Michigan AVAs opened the door for experimental plantings of a wide variety of resistant and vinifera cultivars.

The approach to integrating wine grape cultivars in both northwest and southwest Michigan reflect each region's previous knowledge of viticulture and their capacity for taking risks. These paths are different in the concentration of total vinifera and resistant cultivars (see "Change in Popular Cultivars"). In northwest Michigan, the top five cultivars for total acreage have comprised the bulk of wine grape acreage growth since 2000, particularly Riesling, and demonstrates that successfully growing these cultivars has been the focus of this region.

In southwest Michigan, the top five wine grape cultivars for total acreage saw a steady decrease from 1990 to 2010. The expanding number of cultivars during that time suggests that the goal for the southwest Michigan region was experimentation with a variety of plantings. The slight increase from 2010 to 2014 signals that the search for the most suitable wine grape cultivars for southwest Michigan growing conditions may be coming to a close.

Despite the current difference in vinifera acreage between the two regions, northwest Michigan's ability to grow significant acreage of red vinifera cultivars such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot reveal the added potential for successful expansion of red vinifera acreage in southwest Michigan, in addition to the number of red vinifera cultivars currently occupying small acreage.

Total wine grape acreage and number of wineries

Growth of Michigan's wine grape industry is often related to the number of wineries located throughout the state, which have increased significantly since the mid-1990s. While expansion in both total wine grape acreage and the number of wineries should implicate industry growth, the ratio between these two values over time should be considered a more accurate method.

When Michigan's total wine grape acreage is divided by the number of wineries approved by the TTB, an intriguing figure is produced. In 1970, there were 13.0 acres of wine grapes for each winery, and as acreage saw a large surge in the 1990s (largely attributed to vinifera in the northwest AVAs), this value reached 43.0 acres per winery. However, in 2014, this ratio had decreased to 19.0, indicating that the rate of acreage increase was much lower than that of the wineries.

While the figure presented in this section relates to certain economic principles, we have no training in this field and cannot speculate about the most appropriate ratio of wine grape acres to wineries for the state. Therefore, we must come to conclusions from the point of view of a viticulturist. First, from its beginnings, the focus of viticulture in northwest Michigan has been to limit the negative impact of variable environmental conditions that lead to low heat accumulation and inconsistent ripening of vinifera cultivars from year to year.

Despite the challenges this brings, northwest Michigan has seen rapid expansive growth in both the number of wineries and wine grape acreage. This indicates that viticulture and winemaking have learned from and successfully adapted to Mother Nature in these two AVAs. This is especially true when considering white vinifera cultivars such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, which are consistently recognized across the country for their quality. Second, southwest Michigan has shown growing conditions suitable to consistently ripen red vinifera cultivars since the inception of vinifera plantings in the state. As a region with 30% more GDDs on a yearly basis, southwest Michigan has the capacity for a greater number of red vinifera plantings such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.


A consumer's knowledge of wine can be greatly enhanced through their local tasting room experience. However, it has repeatedly been shown that these consumers are more likely to purchase wine made with classic vinifera cultivars such as Chardonnay and Merlot. It is important then that tasting rooms can offer these wines. The increasing acreage of vinifera cultivars in Michigan has made this task easier and will continue to improve the tasting room experience throughout the state. While growing a large number of cultivars can be important for continuous experimentation due to changing consumer preferences and environmental conditions, there is an advantage to recognizing and concentrating on the cultivars that best reflect a growing region. A contrast exists in this regard between the northwest and southwest Michigan growing regions. In northwest Michigan, new and existing acreage is continuously being devoted to fewer cultivars, and this has allowed this region to establish an identity in cultivars such as Riesling, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. While similar trends indicate that southwest Michigan is heading in this direction, their identity through various cultivars is not as established as the northwest part of the state. Finally, the increasing disparity between the number of wineries and the availability of "Michigan-grown" wine grape acreage to supply those wineries solidifies the need for growth in wine grape acreage. Due to the challenges associated with growing more marketable cultivars in cool climates, this acreage growth may not come as quickly as desired. These conditions hindering growth must be the primary focus of viticulturists and researchers in Michigan so that future growth and patterns may continue to be assessed over the next 50 years. [C]

Josh Vanderweide is a graduate student of horticulture at Michigan State University, Paolo Sabbatini is an associate professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, and G. Stanley Howell is professor emeritus of viticulture and enology at Michigan State University.


Michigan has two main grapegrowing regions: the southwest around Fennville and along the Lake Michigan shoreline, and the northwest including the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas.

In 1970, the grape industry in southwest Michigan was based primarily on Vitis labrusca varieties including Concord and Niagara, and wine grapes were just being introduced to the area.

In the decades between 1970 and 1990, pestand disease-resistant wine grape cultivars were planted in both regions in Michigan. After 1990, plantings of Vitis vinifera vines in the northwest region grew rapidly, while plantings in southwest Michigan included both the resistant wine grapes and vinifera varieties.


There is increasing interest among grape breeders worldwide in the development of cultivars that are more resistant to pests and disease, even in areas where the public is skeptical of hybrid varieties. In this article, the term "resistant" is introduced to describe French hybrids, interspecific hybrids or any other resistant cultivars of both European and North American origins. In many ways, resistant cultivars were a key to the rapid changes that took place in the Great Lakes region and paved the way for the current mixed viticulture there that includes both Vitis vinifera and the new interspecific hybrid varieties.

Caption: Riesling in the most planted wine grape cultivar in Michigan, and 80% of the state's total Riesling acreage is planted in northwest Michigan.

Caption: CHANGE IN POPULAR CULTIVARS The five most popular cultivars of 1970 in northwest and southwest Michigan fell out of favor between 1985 and 2014.


These figures represent the increase of wine grape acreage in northwest (Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula appellations, top) and in southwest Michigan (Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville appellations) from 1970 to 2014.


Evolution of wine grape acreage in Michigan. Top: The number of acres planted to wine grapes increased in all areas of Michigan from 1970 to 2014, but not at the same rate. Bottom: After trailing behind hybrids from 1970 to 1990, plantings of vinifera grew quickly from 1990 to 2014.


The number of wineries in Michigan (top) exploded between 1995 and 2014, while the number of wine grape acres per winery (bottom) peaked in the early 1990s before normalizing. Source: Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)


Top Five Wine Grape Cultivars in Northwest Michigan
(acreage in parenthesis)

Rank            1970                   1990

1        Vignoles (9 acres)     Vignoles (48 acres)
               Aurore                Riesling#
2            (7 acres)              (35 acres)
             De Chaunac             Chardonnay#
3            (6 acres)              (30 acres)
               Seyval               De Chaunac
4            (4 acres)              (18 acres)
           Marechal Foch              Seyval
5             (1 acre)              (16 acres)

Rank           2000                   2010

1      Riesling# (144 acres)   Riesling# (485 acres)
            Chardonnay#            Pinot Noir
2          (125 acres)            (196 acres)
            Pinot Noir             Chardonnay#
3           (55 acres)            (165 acres)
            Pinot Gris#            Pinot Gris#
4           (44 acres)            (155 acres)
             Vignoles            Cabernet Franc
5           (38 acres)             (92 acres)

Rank           2014

1      Riesling# (560 acres)
            Pinot Noir
2          (215 acres)
3          (190 acres)
            Pinot Gris#
4          (175 acres)
          Cabernet Franc
5          (110 acres)

Top Five Wine Grape Cultivars in Southwest Michigan
(acreage in parenthesis)

Rank            1970                   1990
            Vidal Blanc             Vidal Blanc
1            (24 acres)             (162 acres)
2       Baco Noir (22 acres)     Seyval (78 acres)
           Marechal Foch             Vignoles
3            (15 acres)             (56 acres)
               Seyval              Marechal Foch
4            (4 acres)              (34 acres)
               Aurore               Chardonnay#
5             (1 acre)              (27 acres)

Rank           2000                   2010
           Vidal Blanc            Vidal Blanc
1          (117 acres)            (125 acres)
2       Seyval (85 acres)     Riesling# (100 acres)
             Vignoles            Marechal Foch
3           (65 acres)             (62 acres)
          Marechal Foch          Cabernet Franc
4           (58 acres)             (55 acres)
            Chardonnay#            Pinot Gris#
5           (47 acres)             (53 acres)

Rank           2014
           Vidal Blanc
1          (135 acres)
2      Riesling# (110 acres)
          Cabernet Franc
3           (60 acres)
4           (63 acres)
          Marechal Foch
5           (56 acres)

White grape cultivars are reported in black, while red grape
cultivars appear in red. Bolded items are vinifera.

Bolded items are vinifera indicated by #.
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Comment:Back to the future: a historical viticulture perspective on the Michigan grape industry.(WINE EAST: GRAPEGROWING)
Author:Vanderweide, Josh; Sabbatini, Paolo; Howell, G. Stanley
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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