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BACK TO THE BEGINNING (A History of Wine)
(Content courtesy The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council & A.H.D. VINTNERS, LTD)

To follow the history of the vine and winemaking from the very beginning until now, we must take a winding route that stretches back over a period of more than 7,000 years. Few facts are known about the early years although it is generally accepted that wine was made for the first time in Persia, with evidence of wine production dating back as far as 6000 BC. From there, winemaking spread to Egypt, where written references to wine dating back to 5000 BC have been found. At about that same time, they began making wine in Phoenicia. By 2000 BC, the Greeks and the Cretans had also begun producing wine. The Cretans in particular became famous for exporting quality wine.

By 1000 BC, the inhabitants of Sicily, Italy and most countries in North Africa had begun planting vineyards, and 500 years later wine production spread to Spain, the south of France and Arabia. In about 100 BC, wine was also made in northern India and China. Winemaking then spread to the Balkan States and northern Europe. The history of wine virtually ground to a halt for the next 1 000 years as the decline of the Roman Empire and Europe's Dark Ages curtailed its development. Explorers in the 16th century accelerated the pace again and by 1530 the vine had spread to Mexico and Japan. Some 30 years later Argentina imported vine plantings, followed a öshort while later by Peru. The next milestone was the planting of vineyards at the Cape in 1655. California followed in 1697, and Australia and New Zealand in 1813.

The development of wine cultivation has over the years gone hand in hand with the spread of civilization. Looking back at the early days of the vine and its product, it is obvious that while winemaking methods and advanced techniques produce different styles of wine, the basic principles have changed very little. It is interesting to note that viticulturists selected and propagated varieties thousands of years ago. They understood cloning techniques and made distinctive and excellent wines for export.
The ancient Greeks had no fewer than 18 adjectives to describe wine and the Romans made more than 80 styles. Some Roman wines were apparently still drinkable after being stored for 200 years. They developed many of the sophisticated viti- and vinicultural techniques still in use today.

History of Winemaking in Michigan
A TALE OF TWO REGIONS

Michigan's winemaking history spans two centuries. In the period just before the Civil War, disease destroyed America's largest wine-producing region along the Ohio River near Cincinnati. The remnants of that industry migrated to the already recognized grape-growing region along Lake Erie. This area quickly became, in its turn, the leading wine region in the country. By 1880, vineyards extended past Toledo into Southeast Michigan. In 1919, there were eight wineries near Monroe, none of which survived Prohibition.

Southwest Michigan's wine industry fared much better. Also a recognized wine region in 1880, Southwest Michigan received help from an unlikely source. Temperance advocate Dr. Thomas Welch created the first "unfermented wine," as it was originally called, for use in his church's communion service. It quickly caught on with the public. The newly formed Welch's Grape Juice Company encouraged planting of the Concord grapes from which their product was made. The largest of these plantings were in Western New York and Southwest Michigan. By 1900 Concord grapes had become the foundation grapes of the wine industry as well. The opening of a Welch's plant in Lawton, near Paw Paw, in 1919, helped the area's grape growers survive Prohibition.

A TASTE OF THE TIMES

The red-skinned Concord and similar white-skinned Niagara varieties are close relatives of vines native to eastern North America. They are often called by their scientific name - vitis labrusca. With our contemporary wine industry built on Cabernet and Chardonnay, we find it hard to imagine a wine industry based on Concord or Niagara. But this is how most American wine was made at the turn of the century. New York, Ohio, Missouri and Michigan were large wine producers, and nearly all the grapes used were varieties like these. These pungent, usually sweet and often fortified wines were extraordinarily popular. (Even California produced predominantly sweet and fortified wines on into the 1960s!) In the 1940s and 1950s Michigan wineries were so successful at meeting consumer demand, that 80 percent of all wines sold in Michigan were produced in Michigan.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A'CHANGING

The 1960s saw many changes come to America, including a change in the kinds of wines we drank. Some claim that soldiers living in Europe adopted the local customs of drinking drier table wines with meals. Some claim increased prosperity and travel contributed to the process. Americans such as Julia Child, Frank Schoonmaker and others certainly added their influence by writing about European foods and wines. By 1968, Americans' tastes had changed enough that, for the first time, consumers purchased more of the drier table wines than the sweeter dessert and fortified wines.
This was a revolution in American culture. And it was a revolution that eastern wineries in general and Michigan wineries in particular were ill suited to accommodate. The grapes that worked so well up until then failed miserably to make the drier table wines to which consumers were flocking. Their biggest strength was now their biggest weakness. Of Michigan's highly successful wineries from the 1950s only one has survived. (The St. Julian Wine Company, under the leadership of David Braganini, has actually thrived; becoming the fortieth largest winery in the United States and being named Winery of the Year 1998 by Tasters Guild.)

A NEW BEGINNING

In retrospect, this near complete housecleaning of the Michigan wine industry forced us to evolve into a truly fine wine industry with the ability to produce world-class wines. Other eastern wine industries suffered, but none saw the near complete collapse that occurred in Michigan. When our industry was rebuilt, it was rebuilt with the right grapes and the right personnel. The new owners and winemakers were dedicated to producing the finest European- style table wines and planted grape varieties with this in mind.
The modern Michigan wine industry is built upon two major grape types. Hybrid varieties, sometimes called French-American hybrids, produce good quality table wines and are also cold-hardy and disease-resistant. With names like Vignoles and Chambourcin, hybrids deserve to be better known than they are. The other type includes traditional European varieties such as Chardonnay and Merlot. These European varieties are often referred to by their scientific name - vitis vinifera.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the first hybrid grape varieties were introduced into Southwest Michigan. The first European varieties were planted around 1970 on Mt. Tabor in Berrien County by Len Olsen and Carl Banholzer. Tabor Hill Vineyard and Winery still produces excellent wines from some of these original vines.
Southwest Michigan continues to produce large amounts of juice grapes - enough to make Michigan the fourth largest grape-growing state. But this area also produces about half of Michigan's wine grapes. Growers here have found that wine grapes can be extremely profitable, and they are increasingly ready to plant and properly care for the more tender but valuable hybrid and vinifera varieties.

A NEW REGION

In the 1970s, an entirely new wine region was born in northwest lower Michigan near Traverse City. On the Leelanau Peninsula, Bernie Rink planted the first French-American hybrid vines. Larry Mawby, Bruce Simpson and others soon followed. Over on the Old Mission Peninsula, Ed O'Keefe became convinced - contrary to all accepted wisdom - that Riesling and other vinifera varieties could also be grown. He was proven correct. Today, both the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas are predominantly vinifera grape regions. Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc all vie for attention. And the number of wineries in the area has increased from an original five to over sixteen and continues to grow.

"A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FRIENDS"

Important contributions to Michigan's reborn wine industry have come from several sources. Research has been done by Dr. G. Stanley Howell and his colleagues at Michigan State University on the best vineyard practices, the best varieties and even the best clones for Michigan's unique situation.
Much of this research was funded by the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, which was founded in 1985 to support the development of the state's growing wine industry. The council is administered by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Among the promotional activities coordinated by the council is an annual wine competition where experts from around the country evaluate the latest releases.

REAL QUALITY

In the past 30 years, Michigan winegrape growers, owners, winemakers and other industry associates have revolutionized our wine industry. To meet changing consumer preferences, today's vintners concentrate on finding the best varieties and locations, and utilize the latest technological advances in viticulture and enology. With an impressive dedication to quality, they produce excellent everyday wines as well as an increasing number of world class wines.

Some Facts about Michigan Wine

  • Michigan has 14,600 acres of vineyards making it the 4th largest grape-growing state.
  • Most of this acreage is devoted to juice grapes such as Concord and Niagara.
  • About 2,000 acres are devoted to wine grapes, making it 8th in wine grape production.
  • Vineyard area has increased more than 60% in the last ten years (as of 2009).
  • Michigan's 64 commercial wineries produce more than 1 million gallons of wine annually, making it 13th in wine production.
  • The vast majority of our production is from Michigan-grown grapes.

Three types of grapes are used for wine in Michigan:

  • Vinifera varieties - these are the classic European varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling (the most widely planted white), Pinot Noir (the most widely planted red), Pinot Grigio/Gris and Cabernet Franc; about 65% of Michigan's wine grapes are vinifera. Since 1997, 90% of the new plantings in Michigan have been vinifera varieties.
  • Hybrid varieties (sometimes called French/American hybrids) - these are botanical crosses between vinifera varieties and grapes native to North America. Typical names are Vidal, Chambourcin, Marechal Foch and Vignoles; about 35% of Michigan's wine grapes are hybrids.
  • Native varieties - actually close relatives of true native varieties. Typical names are Concord and Niagara. About 3% of Michigan's wine is made from these varieties.

Most of Michigan's quality wine grapes grow within 25 miles of Lake Michigan. Here, the "lake effect" protects the vines with snow in winter, retards bud break in spring helping avoid frost damage, and extends the growing season by up to four weeks.

Michigan has 4 federally approved viticultural areas (AVAs). In the northwest part of the state, near Traverse City, lie the Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula. This area has a growing season averaging 145 days and an average heat accumulation of 2,350 growing degree days; 51% of Michigan's wine grapes grow here. In the southwest part of the state lie the Lake Michigan Shore and Fennville appellations, where 45% of Michigan's wine grapes are grown. This area has a growing season averaging 160 days and an average heat accumulation of 2,750 growing degree days. Both are Region 6 on the USDA plant hardiness zone map.

Michigan wineries make many styles of wine, from dry to sweet including Ice Wine, sparkling, fortified, fruit wines and eau-de-vie (fruit brandy).

Michigan wines are typically "cool climate" - clean, crisp, balanced wines that exhibit real varietal character.