The New Red

In 2008, a national wine grape experiment – the NE 1020 – took root, planting as-yet-untried wine grape varieties from around the world in U.S. regions with similar environments.

The Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Traverse City was a test site for 20 new varieties – about half of them reds. Last month, the first wines made from those experimental grapes were unveiled in Lansing. The TCBN taps into the test, the taste and the potential promise of reds never before grown Up North.

TRAVERSE CITY – An ongoing multi-state study of grape varieties could result in more dynamic red wine selections being produced at northern Michigan wineries.

Three red wine varieties made the finals in a recent tasting as part of NE 1020, a study that involves 25 grape growing locations in Michigan and 15 other states. They included:

– Zweigelt – A variety developed in Austria in 1922 and planted in select locations in Canada.

– Lagrein – A vigorous variety from Northern Italy, noted for generous yields.

– Teroldigo – An Italian variety, whose snappy acidity results in a versatile food wine.

Among white wine varieties grown locally for the study are:

– Tocai Friulano – An Italian variety, sometimes confused with sauvignon blanc.

– Rkatsitelli – A Georgian variety, it is widely planted in Eastern Europe.

– Gruner Veltliner – A food-friendly variety grown in Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

"It looks like there was no real consensus on what was best, but in general all of them were well received," says Paul Jenkins, Grape and Wine Integrator at Michigan State University who is helping to conduct the NE 1020 study.

Launched in 2008, the study is designed to determine if wine varieties grown in other similar regions can thrive in northern Michigan's variable climate. The study will run though 2017. Data will be evaluated and shared among the states and will be valuable to vintners and growers in Michigan in laying the groundwork for the plantings of additional wine grape vineyards.

Michigan State University professor Dr. Paolo Sabbatini is leading the state efforts of NE 1020. An expert in viticulture, Sabbatini oversees the study research at MSU's Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station in Leelanau County and a second site in Benton Harbor. Both test sites were established in 2008.

Sabbatini, who joined MSU as an assistant professor of horticulture in 2007, is a native of Jesi, in Italy's Marche region, renowned for its Verdicchio grapes.

Of all 16 states involved in NE 1020, Michigan has planted the largest selection of different grape varieties, according to Jenkins. The study could result in improved lines of red wine grapes being grown in northern Michigan. Local growers have mastered a number of award-winning white wine varieties, but reds have not received the same acclaim. Research from NE 1020 could eventually lead to reds that feature bold color with more depth of flavor.

"We're trying to find varieties that we can grow here in Michigan," Jenkins explains. "To make good quality wine – that's the end goal."

Grapes from the research station were processed into wine by Old Mission vintner Bill McDonald. The wine was made under controlled research conditions, according to Jenkins. "It wasn't a perfect situation, but we did our best," he says. "It's difficult to make quality wine in very small batches like we did. But I think we did a pretty good job.

With 81 wineries now operating in Michigan, including 10 new ones in the past year, the state's wine business is booming. That was reflected by the keen interest in the NE 1020 tasting held at MSU. Commercial winemakers and growers from across the state were invited to participate, with more than 75 people taking part in the June 1 event.

"It was a good tasting," says winemaker Brian Hosmer of Chateau Chantal, who attended the event. "It was interesting to compare varieties from the northwest and southwest [of Michigan]. In general, I thought the southwest seemed to have more body, while the northwest had a light, fruity flavor."

Hosmer was impressed with the study's red wine varieties. "There are all kinds of good possibilities with reds," he says. "You just need the right vintage and varieties in the right places."

Another attendee was northern Michigan vineyard consultant Craig Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Viticultural Services. He has played a role in the study, overseeing training at the research center where he taught spray application, crop protection and how to reduce the variables that can affect the fruit.

"What we want to find from these grape trials is 'Can it survive? Is it susceptible to disease?'" he says. "We're looking for both quality and quantity."

Michigan has 14,600 acres of vineyards, making it the fourth largest grape-growing state in the nation. Most of this acreage is devoted to juice grapes, such as Concord and Niagara. About 2,000 acres are devoted to wine grapes, ranking Michigan eighth in wine grape production.

Michigan's 81 commercial wineries produce more than 1 million gallons of wine annually, making the state 13th in wine production. The vast majority of production is from grapes grown at Michigan vineyards. BN