The 2021 Wine Harvest Report

 In CGT Blog

Harvesting grapes in Michigan is never easy, but it’s always rewarding for Chateau Grand Traverse! The wine harvest season wraps up for us in early November. During this busy time, our president, Eddie O’Keefe, paused to share the details of the harvest and what happens next. A few other employees shared their thoughts too. Here’s our harvest report!

How did harvest 2021 go?

(From Eddie O’Keefe:) In one word, the 2021 wine harvest season could be described as “challenging.” That is not to say the quality or tonnage was off, but rather many delays (weather, equipment issues) and very large tonnages made things interesting overall. In fact, this is the largest harvest in our 47-year history. We processed over 750 tons of grapes. The quality seems great, with very good sugar content and balanced acids.

What factors made it a unique year?

Every growing year offers unique challenges and attributes. Overall, 2021 actually had very mild weather, with ample rainfall and warm temperatures. One of the debilitating factors that affected us in 2021 was one that reappeared from 2020: the smoke haze emanating from the Canadian wildfires, as well as out west. It prevents sunlight from penetrating, thus reducing the vines’ photosynthesis. July offered more rain than usual, keeping the vines vigorous and healthy, with little drought stress. When harvest arrived in early October, temperatures remained relatively warm and dry, allowing us time to pick and process. What we didn’t expect was the dramatic increase in tonnage, most likely the result of July rain. We had a number of younger vineyards begin producing, again resulting in much larger tonnages.

When are grapes harvested in Michigan?

Up north, grapes are harvested throughout October and early November. However, timing is different every year and varies by varietal. (The next answer explains this more!)

What people and equipment are involved?

Harvest is a timely coordination between the winemaker, vineyard manager, and growers. Not all grapes can be harvested at once, nor processed at once. It’s a balancing act of timing to pick the very best fruit while maximizing efficiency – all while dealing with the elements.

During harvest, we employ both hand-picking and mechanical methods, depending on the variety. Hand picking is better for reds, Chardonnay, and delicate grape varieties. Mechanical picking allows for speed and precise timing. Modern mechanical methods are much easier on the vines and fruit than they used to be, and we can pick an acre of grapes as fast as 20 minutes. (This is equivalent to the speed of 50 to 60 hand pickers.)

Once the grapes are delivered to the winery, we have a winemaking crew of about eight people receiving, testing, and processing the grapes. On a good day, we can receive and process up to 60 tons of fruit.

What was the most memorable moment from this harvest?

The most memorable – or scary! – part of the 2021 harvest season was the realization that we were going to run out of tank space. We were caught off guard with the size of the crop, our 100 fermenting tanks were full, and we had another 125 tons of fruit to bring in. After many phone calls and scrambling, we were able to have rental tanks delivered just in the nick of time. It was a very worrying few days.

What did other CGT employees enjoy about harvest?

Peter Francisco, production manager at CGT, is driven by the intensity of harvest. The balancing of production, long hours, and pushing his body to the limit to get through the 30- to 40-day process is rewarding and exhilarating. It’s a personal challenge that rewards him when it’s over and complete. It’s the beginning of a new vintage that he will see through to bottling!

Kurtis Berry, assistant winemaker at CGT, loves the variety of harvest. Harvest is all about the variety of ripenesses and the quality of grapes. The smells, flavors, colors, and the intensity of the grapes. The aromas of yeast, fermentation, alcohol, CO2. Hot and cold and wet. Multitasking. Moments of rest combined with periods of intensity. It’s a time to compare last year to this year, the start of a new vintage. It’s tasting the grapes in the vineyard and imagining what they can be. It’s hard to describe!

What happens once the grapes are hauled in?

Once the grapes are received at the winery, they’re generally destemmed and pumped directly into the press. From there, we lightly press the grapes to express the juice, which is immediately pumped into a stainless-steel fermentation tank. Once filled, the tank is maintained at approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and we add yeast to begin the process. Fermentation is the conversion of the grape sugars to alcohol, with a byproduct of heat and CO2. After approximately 10 to 14 days, all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, roughly 10% to 14% by volume. From here, we allow the wine solids (lees) to settle at the bottom of the tank. We will rack the wine and transfer the clear wine to another tank. The remaining slurry of grape skins and yeast will be coarse filtered to retain any juice. From here, it’s a waiting game under controlled conditions for several months to allow the wine to develop and age. When ready, we will blend and create a final version from several different tanks, depending on style. This final blend is then ready for bottling.

Red wines undergo a period of on-skin aging to extract color, as well as oak aging to add depth, flavor, and body. This can add several months to the overall process.

When will customers be drinking the wine made from the grapes you just harvested?

Every wine is different. We will begin bottling for most white varieties around June the following year. Reds will take longer, as will barrel-aged styles, taking perhaps as much as 24 to 36 months to produce. During the summer period, most wines are bottled to make room for the next year’s crop. It’s a cyclical pattern. We make wine one time a year, one year at a time.

Is there a specific wine you’re particularly excited to make from this harvest?

Bernd Croissant, the head winemaker at CGT, says:

“Our perennial Riesling came in beautifully this year, with sugar levels exceeding 23° brix with outstanding late-harvest qualities. This is what our customers have come to expect. What I’m excited about, however, is our new cabernet field bearing its second-year fruit. It’s rich, full bodied, deep purple, tannic, intense, and flavorful. It’s not even in the fermenter or yet in the barrel, and it’s already showing well. We have a way to go… Look for a specialty bottling of our cabernet – around 200 to 300 cases – in the spring of 2023. This one is very special!”

The Hard Work Is Worth It!

Winemaking is laborious, cold, wet, time-consuming, and meticulous. It’s not as easy as some would be led to believe. However, the reward of the finished product is why we repeat this process every year and face new challenges. We hope you’re as excited about new CGT vintages as we are. In the meantime, you can shop our wines here or visit our tasting room in beautiful northern lower Michigan.