"I love harvest time," enthuses winemaker Matt Thomson. "When you get this state of flux, it's exciting." Terrifying, more like. Or at least that's how it seems to me: to be at the mercy of Mother Nature, who can undo a year's hard work and the annual opportunity winemakers get to create their product through ill-timed bursts of weather, as has been her way this vintage.
When I caught up with him at the Saint Clair Omaka Reserve Pinot Noir Launch in Marlborough a few weeks back, Thomson had just been poring over four different weather forecasts, one of which was predicting the precipitation that is every winemaker's nightmare at this time of year. Add that to the fact that the conditions of this vintage have been some of the most taxing in memory and I'm wondering why he's not weeping, rather than waxing lyrical about the joys of the vintage period.
While many of us have been moaning about our summer, or rather lack of, the cool, cloudy and wet weather this season has created chaos across most of the country's wine regions.
In the all-important growing season for grapes, Marlborough experienced its lowest levels of sunshine hours since records began, as did Auckland, and Martinborough its third lowest. Martinborough shivered through some of its lowest air temperatures, while record rain in Nelson caused a state of emergency and flooded vineyards.
"I've never seen a year quite like this," says veteran vigneron Thomson, echoing the opinion of most of the winemakers across the country whose opinions I solicited. The only region experiencing anything like normality is Central Otago, whose winemakers seem very happy with the season.
In Marlborough, the powerhouse of the New Zealand wine industry, poor flowering has led to extremely low crops, with this year's vintage estimated to be down by as much as 30 to 50 per cent. This means no more cheap and plentiful sauvignon blanc for wine drinkers, so it could be time to stock up as the surpluses of the past switch suddenly to possible shortages.
Ever the optimist, Thomson considers the low crops are the silver lining to the clouds of this chilly season, as at gives the region a better chance of ripening them in a year where the harvest here started two weeks later than average. If it was a normal crop load, there'd be a real risk of the grapes not ripening sufficiently, leading to lean acidic whites and tough, green tasting reds.
Mother Nature appears to have bestowed the most challenging weather on the east coast regions of the North Island, with Hawkes Bay and Gisborne experiencing deluges over vintage leading to rot and a rush to pick that can lead to grapes being harvested before reaching optimum levels of ripeness, while later varieties are simply being left in the vineyard.
"The most disappointing harvest since 1979," is how Gisborne's James Millton described it. "Don't ask!" sighed a Hawkes Bay winemaker when quizzed off the record about the situation. "It's a really challenging wet vintage from which there will be very few highlights."
However, another Hawkes Bay winemaker, Rod McDonald, saw the glass half full, as he claimed there would be a few bright spots and that the good sites still shone.
Back in Marlborough a week later, and the general mood at least in this region has lifted, as the rain that was forecast thankfully failed to fall.
"I'm happy with how things are going," says Wither Hill's chief winemaker, Ben Glover, as he oversees the start of picking his prized pinot noir crop. "I was worried a couple of weeks ago, but we're experiencing an Indian summer now, the grapes' flavours are there and the pinot is looking good."
I have to admire our doughty vignerons in a vintage like this, while being reminded of why I've never bought into the romance of possessing my own vineyard.
Wither Hills Single Vineyard Taylor River Pinot Noir 2008 $55
From Wither Hills' duo of reserve pinots, the recently released Taylor River has deep, supple spiced black plum fruit lifted by a bright acidity and floral notes. (From Liquor King.)
Saint Clair Pioneer Block 5 Bull Block Marlborough Gruner Veltliner 2011 $23.50
One of the finest examples so far of this new variety in our vineyards, displaying gruner's classic nuances of white pepper and dill over fresh, dry, fleshy peach fruit. (From Hamilton Wine Company, Glengarry.)
Whitehaven "Greg" Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $24.95 to $26.95
Intense notes of blackcurrant leaf and mineral, punchy lime and fresh oregano combine in this impressive Marlborough sauvignon. (From Liquorland Newmarket, Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Primo Vino, Scenic Cellars, Merchant of Taupo, Village Wine Trader.)
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