Growing wine grapes in Michigan can be tricky. The European vinifera grape varieties that many people are familiar with, such as Riesling or Chardonnay, are not native to Michigan, but the favorable climate along Michigan’s western coast has allowed these varieties to grow well with proper management.

Michigan’s wine grape acreage is actually considered to be in its infancy when compared to states such as California, where European vinifera wine grapes were first planted in the mid-1800s. In comparison, the first recorded planting of vinifera grapes in Michigan was in 1969. Because wine grape growing is a relatively young industry in the state, Michigan grape growers are searching for the best methods to manage the growing of vinifera grape varieties so that the grapes will make wine people will enjoy.

Management in the vineyard

For Paolo Sabbatini, Michigan State University (MSU) assistant professor of horticulture, specializing in viticulture, it is all about managing the balance between good grapes and healthy vines. Good management of the vine canopy improves fruit and wine quality, and involves the proper spacing of vines in the rows and proper distance between rows, as well as appropriate vine training, pruning, irrigation, fertilization and summer activities such as hedging of grapevines shoots, thinning of shoots out of the canopy and removing leaves.

“Managing a grapevine canopy plays a big role in developing ripe grapes in a cool climate like Michigan,” he said. “This is true for two reasons – the season here doesn’t produce as much heat and sunlight as a state like California and the season is shorter, as well; late spring and early fall frost force the growers to speed up the vine annual cycle, compressed into only 120 to 140 days. We need to do all we can to make a grapevine canopy as highly efficient as possible. To ripen the fruit properly, none of the canopy can be wasted. Timely canopy management and vineyard management practices are pivotal factors to reconcile apparently incompatible challenges: produce good to excellent grapes at economically acceptable yield per acre.”