Apr 26, 2018
Great season, technology has winegrapes grower beaming

Spirits are high this harvest at northwest Michigan’s Black Star Farms. Owners say they took in the best harvest in memory and purchased a thermo-vinification device to bring the best out of Midwestern winegrapes.

“This was by far the best year we’ve ever had,” said part-owner Kerm Campbell, who has been growing since the early 1990s. There was almost no disease pressure, and the weather was mild.

The season started well at the end of May and early June with a good fruit set.

“The season was strange,” Campbell said. “It was cool all summer … and then, sometime in September, temperatures went up into the 80s.”

The unseasonably warm weather lasted for six weeks, running into October, and Campbell was able to see almost all of the grapes ripen before harvest.

He harvested about 5 tons of white grapes to the acre, and 3.5 tons of red grapes to the acre – roughly 50 to 75 percent more grapes per acre than in an average year. Last year was average, he said, and the two previous years, 2013-2014 were bad because of cold weather.

Campbell finished harvesting his grapes Nov. 8, and said all indications were pointing toward a good vintage.

“We can tell a lot about it by the taste of the grapes,” he said. But “we won’t really know until we’ve fermented the grapes and have some time in the tank (and) barrels.”

Head Winemaker Lee Lutes shows off a thermovinification device that’s supposed to bring out the best from Midwestern winegrapes. Photos: Black Star Farms

Bringing out the best

Black Star Farms this year invested in a new piece of machinery owners hope will improve the quality of their wine.

The company in July unveiled Flash Détente, a thermovinification system intended to mitigate the effects of widely swinging weather variables often experienced in Michigan. Black Star said it’s the first winemaker in Michigan to have the equipment, which is supposed to minimize the negative components such as harsh tannins and less developed flavors and colors, while producing better quality red wine.

“To say this is a new era in red wine making for Michigan might be a stretch, but I’ve not seen as much optimism from my fellow winemakers since our last ‘great’ vintage, which was back in 2012,” said Black Star Farms Head Winemaker Lee Lutes. “It is my hope that with this tool we won’t have to wait five more years for the vines to give us what we need to make delicious reds.”

Widely used in Europe, South America and Australia for 20 years, the technology is relatively new to the U.S., having been introduced in California in 2009.

Crushed and de-stemmed grapes go into the machine, where skins and juice are heated to 180˚ F for one minute or less. During this minute, the skins enter a vacuum chamber where skin cells are ruptured and release color constituents. Desirable color components are extracted from the skins, while harsh tannins are minimized. The unit owned by the Winery at Black Star Farms can process 5 tons of grapes in one hour.

Lutes, the winemaker, has begun to experiment with using the device on red and white winegrapes. “We’ll be sampling wine from the same vineyard, some grapes side by side,” Lutes said. “One will have gone through the flash and the other will not.”

A regional wave

Campbell has about 110 acres of his own producing vineyards, called A Capella Farms, which supplies the majority of the juice for the Black Star Farms label. Other owners of the co-op together grow about 70-80 acres of winegrapes, allowing the ownership group to control nearly all of the fruit used for winemaking. The group produces about 30,000 to 35,000 cases of wine a year.

Black Star Farms itself includes an inn, wine tasting room, shop, restaurant, petting zoo and equestrian facility on a 160-acre estate.

Northwest Michigan had 1,680 acres of grapes under cultivation in 2016. Most of the state’s grapes – 11,000 acres – are grown in southwest Michigan’s Berrien and Van Buren counties, but much of those grapes in the southwest region are Concord grapes grown for the table, juice or processing markets.

In both lakeshore regions, Lake Michigan plays a vital role in moderating the weather, with relatively warm winds in the winter and cooling winds during summer nights. Cool summer nights, Campbell said, are vital to production of Michigan’s white wines.

As far as he can tell, his neighbors also had a good harvest.

“Certainly, northwest Michigan has had a bumper,” Campbell said.

– Stephen Kloosterman, FGN Assistant Editor

Top photo: An inn, restaurant and event spaces are located on Black Star’s property near Suttons Bay, Michigan.


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