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Harvest 2005: New Zealand Sees Smaller Crops, Bigger Flavors

Vintners expect consistently good whites, soft reds

Eric Arnold
Posted: June 15, 2005

As harvest drew to a close a few weeks ago, one of Marlborough's biggest bottling companies cleared some space and opened its doors to vineyard workers, who were finally able to switch from Red Bull to wine and to let loose and dance as DJs spun tunes until 2 a.m. There was good reason to celebrate, as New Zealand wineries were only 8 percent short of last year's record harvest, but vintners were much more enthusiastic about the quality.

"Every year, we say it was a good year," admitted Ant MacKenzie, winemaker for Spy Valley in Marlborough, New Zealand's largest wine region. "But in 2005, I don't think anyone's going to struggle with making fantastic wine."

Of course, winemakers had to dodge the usual bullets. On the North Island, Hawke's Bay, which is known for its Bordeaux-style wines, had its warmest summer since 1998, but was hit with rain just as harvest was about to begin. The Sauvignon Blanc grown in silty areas fared worst, but Craggy Range winemaker Steve Smith said the Bordeaux varieties, planted in stony areas, "did incredibly well and just drained all the water away."

Trinity Hill winemaker John Hancock said the Hawke's Bay reds were left with "good colors and lower acidity than we would normally get. The wines feel softer in the mouth--nice, soft tannins." Smith believes the wines will exhibit the structure, elegance and ageability of Bordeaux, rather than the overtly fruity characteristics often associated with New World regions. "We've got the best red wines we've ever seen because we had a great summer," Smith added.

Due south, in smaller, cooler Martinborough, where Craggy Range grows its Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, a cold snap at flowering time cut the crop size in half. With the resulting berries varying substantially in size, there was some "triage required on those bunches at harvest time," Smith said; however, he is optimistic about the flavor concentration and overall quality of the juice.

The same crop-cutting cold snap reached across the Cook Straight to Marlborough, on the South Island. But there was a silver lining to the reduced yields, said Spy Valley's MacKenzie. "The Sauvignon Blanc is heaps better than last year. The flavors were obviously there in 2004, but the question was whether they were diluted by bigger crops." This year, he said, the smaller crop size resulted in more concentrated flavor across all the white varieties. "The quality from $10 to $20 is going to be very consistent," he said. "It'll be a good year for the consumer."

At the end of harvest, an unusual hard frost blanketed Marlborough, but it only affected a handful of unpicked blocks.

Such potentially damaging harvesttime frosts are more common farther south in Pinot Noir-dominated Central Otago. But this year, the region experienced a cool period at flowering, cutting its crop size, though it was still larger than in the particularly challenging 2004 vintage. Although the growing season in Central Otago--a rugged, mountainous region with much variation from vineyard to vineyard--is very short, the smaller crop was able to ripen fully before frost and snow settled in.

"Depending on the subregion, I think the wines will show different expressions," said Carol Bunn, who spent four years at Akarua and now oversees several new labels set to launch in the next year. "We've got great color, and great fruit expressions such as the cherries, plums, violets and some nice earthiness," she said. "Some people think Central Otago is viticulturally on the edge, but it always seems to pull through."

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