Great vintage in the making

By Ken Sanderson

About this time every year you might see strange-looking machinery rolling slowly along the main roads around Hawke's Bay.

While you wait to pass them, spare a thought for the people who have been driving them long hours, day after day, harvesting the grape crop that has been ripening on the vines through this fantastic summer.

Red-eyed with fatigue, winery workers are putting in the hours processing the fruit into wine which earns Hawke's Bay $275 million a year and which has our region described as "very exciting" by international journalists and consumers of fine wine.

It's vintage - and everyone in the wine industry counts their career by the number of vintages they've worked. A keen cellarhand can work two or even three vintages per year, moving to follow autumn around the world.

So what is it about 2013 that has everyone in the industry excited, when the rest of the agricultural world is worried about the drought? In short, provided there is enough water available to keep the vines growing, a warm to hot dry summer and autumn mean concentrated flavours in the grape juice, and clean, healthy fruit which can ripen on the vine until everything about it - flavour, acid, sugar - are in balance to make the perfect wine.

A great vintage means wines with strong flavours, elegant structure and the ability for the wine to mature in the bottle for years. While most vintages these days are good, thanks to advanced viticulture and winemaking, there haven't been that many great ones in the last few decades.

The triple vintages of 1989, 90 and 91 were spectacular at the time. The long, hot summer of 1998 was, like this year, much discussed at the time - but the vineyards of the 1990s were still relatively poor quality. Innovations in viticulture and new clones of vines meant that 98 was surpassed by 2007, 2009 and 2010.

Cool weather, spring frost or rain around harvest time made other years generally less successful, although local areas will claim a particular year was the best they've experienced.

This variation in quality is what keeps wine lovers interested in wines from our cool climate. There's no fun in wine that always tastes exactly the same. And it means there is a need for skill, knowledge and flexibility in the grapegrowing and winemaking process.

Students in grapegrowing and winemaking programmes at EIT are working now in wineries as part of their qualification, gaining the practical experience that will give their theoretical study an extra dimension.

The long hours and hard work are softened by the knowledge that, this year, the wines will be something special - and a great vintage is a great way to start a career.

Ken Sanderson is an EIT lecturer in wine science.

- Hamilton News

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