Leelanau News and Events

The 2023 Wine Harvest Report: Plentiful Healthy Fruit, But What Of Wildfire Smoke?

By Craig Manning | Oct. 18, 2023

Over the course of the 2023 growing season, northern Michigan vineyards experienced just about everything: days of drought and days of heavy rain; picture-perfect weather and days of wildfire haze; a warm, glorious September and a cold, windy October. What will it all mean for this year’s wine vintage? The Leelanau Ticker touches base with a few winemakers busy with harvest to ask about highs, lows, and outcomes.

“The grapes are great,” says Kasey Wierzba, executive winemaker and general manager of Shady Lane Cellars. That winery kicked off its harvest on September 28 by plucking grapes for its pinot noir rosé, and will continue harvesting its (plentiful) crop until “Thanksgiving or right after.” Wierzba credits a fairly optimal seasonal warmup and cooldown cycle for the high quality and quantity of the fruit.

“As we moved into late spring, we were experiencing some drought conditions, but that allowed us to farm pretty organically throughout the spring,” she explains. “It wasn’t until we had those rains in mid-summer that we had to start thinking more about things like pests and disease control.”

Things have gotten rainy once more in the weeks since harvest started, but Wierzba tells the Leelanau Ticker that the corresponding shift from warm September temperatures to cold October days has shielded the grapes from harm once again. “It would be nice for the humans picking the grapes if the rain had held off,” she laughs. “But with these cold temperatures, disease really doesn’t grow.”

The warm conditions in September and early this month were also an asset for the region’s vineyards. In fact, according to Jay Briggs, winemaker at 45 North Vineyard & Winery, summer sticking around a little longer may just be the X-factor that makes Leelanau County’s 2023 wine vintage one for the books.

“That warm spell we just had was really a blessing,” Briggs says. “Things were looking mediocre-to-good [at the end of summer proper], but that warm weather really pushed everything to a better place. And we’re finding that happens to us quite a lot, especially in our best years. We’ve gone into September looking really, really poor quite a few years, and come out of it with the grapes looking really nice.”

While winemakers know all too well that every growing season will look a little different – in terms of temperatures, rain events, pest and disease issues, and growth patterns – summer 2023 threw one unusual monkey wrench into the process: a haze of smoke from Canadian wildfires, which hung over the region in June and July. But do such conditions have any impact on grapes or the wine they produce?

Robert Brengman, winemaker at Brengman Brothers, says smoke can and does impact fruit, something growers in California – which frequently contends with its own wildfire issues – have had to navigate regularly. As far as the impact of a few hazy days on this year’s wine vintage goes, though, Brengman isn’t worried.

“It was hazy, but the smoke wasn’t as thick as it would be if we were closer to those fires,” Brengman explains. “In California, those fires have often been right next to the vineyards, and in those cases, smoke damage will really affect the grapes. But here, the smoke just wasn’t heavy enough. We didn’t get any warnings from Michigan State Extension saying it was a problem, and they’re usually our watchdog for that kind of stuff. And then we finished the season with a lot of good weeks of fresh air and good rain, so I don’t think there’s any reason to think there will be any smoke taint in our grapes.”

Brengman expects 2023 will go down as one of Leelanau's finest wine vintages, comparing it favorably to 2012, a year he says brought “beautiful fruit and fabulous wine.”

While Briggs isn't concerned about smoke taint in the 2023 vintage, either, he says environmental and air quality issues are often-hidden variables that winemakers can't afford to ignore. In addition to wildfire smoke, he notes that vineyards have to be careful about simple proximity to fumes or even just strong odors. Vineyards near highways, for instance, can pick up car exhaust fumes, while vineyards next to almond groves can pull in almond aromas. There’s even equipment in the wine world designed to process grapes before they become wine, to take those aromas out of the mix and make sure they never make it to the bottle.

“It’s called ‘Flash Détente’ and it’s a pretty cool concept,” Briggs says of the wine treatment method, which puts grapes through a heat-treating process called “thermovinification.” Through quick heating followed by quick cooling, that process can remove smoke taint or other contamination from grapes before the fermentation stage.

“But it also helps with some underripe characteristics,” Briggs adds. “There’s actually at least one of these machines [in northern Michigan], which somebody got a grant for a few years ago to take out some underripe characters in our fruit.” Through the grant, most local wineries were able to try out the Flash Détente’ process, which Briggs says essentially eliminated some of the “green characters” associated with fruit that hasn’t had enough time to grow and ripen. “That’s our biggest problem here, because we have a such a short growing season,” he continues. “Some of the varieties could use almost another month of ripening. They’re already into harvesting reds in the southwest, and we’re just finishing our early whites.”

Pictured: The vines at Shady Lane Cellars

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