Tips on Optimizing Fruit in Cooler Climates

Leelanau County, Michigan isn’t especially known for its balmy weather or goof-proof growing season, but Bel Lago nonetheless produces the grapes it needs to produce its estate wines.

More than 100 varieties that can thrive in cool climates and rich soils grow there, with varietals that include Blaufrankisch, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Auxerrois and Siegerrebe. 

The grape harvest is getting underway now in the 37-acre vineyard, where Vineyard Manager Tomas Moreno Jr. oversees the growing season and is responsible for safely ushering between 125-150 tons of grapes to press. The grape harvest typically lasts from mid-September through October there, a couple of months after the winery presses 150 tons of cherries for its wines that use the alternative stone fruit.

Every bit of the summer season is used to ripen optimal fruit.

“The one thing I always tell everybody is it takes time,” said Moreno, who took over the reins after his father, Tomas Moreno Sr., passed away at age 82. “Time is the key component to get good yield, a good harvest and good work done for the grapes. You need to get as much sunlight to the clusters as possible to get good quality fruit for harvest.

“Where we are located, the seasons are short, so we have to time everything to get it open enough to get good airflow and sun exposure so we can have good brix levels, sugar levels and flavor for harvest.”

Pruning the canopy comes down to delicate timing, he said.

“If you do it too early, you’ve got a high risk of burning clusters, but if you’re too late on removing leaves, they don’t get ripened enough,” he explained. “So we do two passes. Really, three, but two of them are major. 

“The first pass is right after bloom and the second pass is right before the clusters are pea-sized. The last pass, if needed, is done when everything is about ready to harvest.”

Metrics and equipment play a role in helping Bel Lago’s team determine when it’s the right time to pick.

Moreno said using a refractometer out in the vineyard gives him a rough idea of the sugar levels and Brix in the grape. He uses that information to tell him when it’s time to bring the sample to the lab for a closer look.

“I put 100 grapes in a zip-up bag, and they crush them inside the bag,” Moreno said. “We pour the juice into the beaker and measure the pH and Brix.”

Getting the freshly picked grapes out of the sun quickly is crucial, as is making sure they’re covered.

“We store them inside the barn,” he said.  “And we keep the lids closed on the picking bins to make sure water doesn’t get inside if it rains. When the bins are on the crush pad, we have to put them in the shade to make sure the sun doesn’t hit the clusters, and we need to keep them covered because rainwater getting into the bin can water down the flavor.”

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