Why Grapes Grow Here – Part Two

Back at the wine cellar, the wine drinker selected another chilled bottle of sparkling wine and carefully opened it. [Holding the bottle pointed away from anyone, grasping the cork firmly, he loosened the wirehood, and then twisted the bottle, holding the cork steady. Thus, safely removing the cork with a gentle pop.] He poured a few ounces into his flute, and holding it to the light, watched the waving lines of tiny bubbles rise up through the wine, breaking on the surface, forming a fine line of foam around the edge of the glass. He sniffed, savoring the delicate bouquet, then sipped, rolling the wine around his tongue, enjoying all the flavors, then swallowing and noting the lingering tastes.
“Ah, yes, fine,” he said to the winegrower. “And now, you were telling me about the lake effect. How does it work, what does it do?”

The wine grower poured a bit of the sparkling wine into a flute for himself, and answered. “Remember these important facts: water is a good heat sink, weather in this part of the world generally moves from west to east, and dry air moving over water picks up moisture. These are the three crucial parts of the lake effect.

“During the summer, the water in Lake Michigan warms, and by early fall it’s the warmest it gets each year. At that point in the season, cold dry air masses from out of the Canadian Arctic sweep over this part of the world, cooling the land. Now, here in this zone along the shore of the lake, the relatively warmer temperature of the lake water heats the air a bit so that the temperature for a few miles inland is warmer than, say 40 miles east of here. This is enough to extend the growing season, warding off the first fall frost, for a few days or even weeks. That’s good for the ripening grapes.

“And then later, after the harvest, the water is still warm, and the cold dry air passing over picks up moisture and gives us here the blessing of lake effect snows. Heavy snowfall early in the winter blankets the land. Underneath this layer of snow, the ground rarely freezes deeply, and the grape vines are insulated against the bitter winter temperatures. This is good for the life of the vine.

“Then, in the spring, the lake, having cooled off over the winter, warms more slowly than the land. This means that in that zone just inland from the shore, early spring temperatures are cooler, delaying vine growth. This delay prevents the vines from leafing out too early, and being injured by the last frosts of spring. This helps the vines produce a stable crop each year. This balance is important for the health of the vine and the quality of the wine.”

“So the lake effect is downwind of the lake, and that’s why Lake Huron doesn’t produce an effect on Michigan, but does on Ontario, and why Lake Michigan doesn’t on Wisconsin,” exclaimed the wine drinker.
“Exactly,” replied the wine grower. “And that’s why wine grapes grow here, and not there. Mostly.” He knew that grapes did grow in Wisconsin. 
“Mostly?” queried the wine drinker. “What do you mean by that, mostly?”

“Well, the lake effect is very important to us, because of the grape varieties we grow, but it’s possible to grow wine grapes without the lake effect. It’s more difficult, more risky, and probably not possible to grow the same tender varieties we grow here. But it is possible.”
“So why don’t people do it?” asked the wine drinker.
“They do do it in other parts of the country, Wisconsin, for example, but they often must grow grape varieties that are able to withstand the climate, without the moderating effect of the lake. And those grape varieties produce wine with subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences in flavor and aroma. Wines unlike the wines produced here. Different wines.”

“Ah,” exclaimed the wine drinker, “but didn’t you say earlier that you wanted to make different wines?” [Author’s note: refer to the previous issue for this reference.]
“Yes, I did, and that’s exactly what I meant. I’m going to use the big ‘T’ word, terroir, which is a French term that’s very poorly understood, and misused a lot, maybe even by me,” the wine grower said, smiling. “Terroir, as I mean it, is the total of the place the wine comes from – it’s the soil and the climate and the vine. And even, I think, the people who tend the vines. Wines that respect their terroir express that terroir uniquely and eloquently. So if I grow a grapevine here, and another grower grows the same variety in, say, Minnesota in the hills along the Mississippi River, the wines we each make would be vastly different. Because of the terroir. The soil, the climate, the people we each are, would make the wines different. And that’s very good.”

“Yes, but what’s that got to do with the lake effect?” asked the wine drinker.

The wine grower refilled their glasses, and continued.
“The lake effect, which we have here, and the hypothetical grower in Minnesota doesn’t have, makes our terroir different, allows us to grow tender varieties that can’t be grown in Minnesota – or in Ann Arbor or Cadillac, for that matter – and helps to give our wines a delicacy they wouldn’t otherwise have. So the difference of my wines is that they are here and not there, this terroir not that. 

“And you can smell it in the wine, and taste it. The smells and tastes are this place in time. And all that makes the difference of this wine or that, of this place or that.”
The two, the wine grower and the wine drinker, looked into their glasses, saw the bubbles rising, and felt the easy peacefulness of being in the right place at the right time.
Holding up his glass, the wine drinker said, “So, that’s why grapes grow here.”

“Indeed,” smiled the wine grower, “Salute!”

-Copyright © 1999 L. Mawby