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New Zealand's largest-ever vintage has put a smile on the face of winemakers throughout the country, except in frost-ravaged Central Otago.
The grape harvest in 2004 is estimated to be between 175,000 and 190,000 tons, more than twice the size of the small 2003 crop, which was hit hard by frost.
Winemakers weren't smiling when record rainfall caused widespread flooding throughout New Zealand in late January and February -- a few weeks before harvest began on the North Island and at least a month before the South Island harvest. Although the rain did lead to some rot in the grapes, the fine weather that followed contained the problem.
Cool ripening conditions delayed the harvest and resulted in higher-than-usual acidity levels in some varieties and regions.
Chardonnay was outstanding, said Ross Lawson, owner of Lawson's Dry Hills winery in Marlborough. But while the quality of Sauvignon Blanc looked good, vineyards with high crop levels may have struggled to ripen fully. "Overall it has been an average vintage in Marlborough in terms of quality," he said.
Winemakers in the North Island regions of Hawke's Bay and Gisborne were more optimistic. "We were a little worried about the wet spell before the harvest began, but the long dry spell that followed has produced some of our best-ever Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah," said Steve Smith, general manager of Craggy Range. "I will reserve my judgement on Cabernet Sauvignon for another month or two, but all other varieties look great."
The vintage in Gisborne finished 10 to 15 days later than usual thanks to the cool ripening conditions. Warwick Bruce, the regional vineyard manager for Montana Wines, which makes the Brancott Vineyards brand, described the vintage as "one of the better vintages in the last decade and potentially better than the excellent 2002 vintage."
Central Otago, the world's most southerly wine region, which is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, had a less successful vintage. Early frosts reduced yields by around one-third, while a late frost stripped many vines of their leaves, preventing at least a portion of the crop from reaching full maturity. Vineyards that escaped the frost may produce very good wine, but they are in the minority.
New Zealand has struggled in recent years to meet worldwide demand for Sauvignon Blanc, the country's most exported wine. Some winemakers fear that the large 2004 harvest may at last create a surplus of New Zealand's signature wine. The price of Sauvignon Blanc grapes has fallen significantly this year, Lawson said. It remains to be seen whether retail prices will eventually follow suit.
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