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Harvest 2008: Fall Rains Douse New Zealand Sauvignon Vineyards

Marlborough battles rot after rains; other regions had it easier

Daniel Sogg
Posted: May 27, 2008

The 2008 vintage is certain to be a mixed bag in Marlborough, New Zealand's largest viticultural region. Harvest rains brought what had been an outstanding growing season to a frenetic conclusion, forcing winemakers to pick before rot spread through Sauvignon Blanc vineyards.

"It was very hard," said Hamish Clark, senior winemaker at Saint Clair Family Estate, based in Marlborough. "The rot raced through the vineyards with unbelievable speed. Grapes would look fine and 12 hours later you had to bring them in."

That meant producers sometimes had to triage, harvesting from their finest sites while fruit remained healthy. That was easiest for wineries not dependent on growers. "It's the old story. If you have your own vineyards, your own harvester and your own winery, and were able to bring it in quickly, you could do well," said Ant Mackenzie, winemaker at Mud House Winery.

The season certainly started well. There was little if any frost in spring, and conditions were warm and mild during flowering, resulting in good-sized crops. Weather remained warm during summer, pointing vintners toward a fairly standard harvest kick-off around the third week of March. The rains, which started March 23, were mostly concentrated in the Wairau Valley of northern Marlborough.

Workers harvest beneath bird netting in Central Otago.

Yields in many vineyards turned out to be about 20 percent to 30 percent larger than initially expected because the berries kept growing. At some sites, those large crops and the rot inhibited ideal ripeness. But producers are very pleased with the Sauvignon Blanc that came in without rot issues. "After a difficult season, we're pretty stoked. The warm season gave more tropical styles. The wines are more opulent and forward [than usual]" said Matt Mitchell, winemaker at Hawkes Bay-based Crossroads Winery, which harvested 2,800 tons of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc this year.

New Zealand's other primary regions had an easier time in 2008. Pinot Noir producers in Central Otago, on the South Island, picked in excellent conditions following an ideal summer. "Weather throughout the vintage was pretty much wonderful, warm and dry. We had good phenolic ripeness at fairly low alcohol, and brown, brown seeds [which gives ripe tannins]," said Grant Taylor, winemaker at Valli.

Although some sites suffered frost in spring, yields across Otago are unusually large, as much as 5 tons per acre in some vineyards. Amisfield winemaker Jeff Sinnott made wines with lower alcohols than they had in 2006. "It was cooler than 2006, but warmer than 2007. We picked a bit earlier [this year] to hold onto more freshness," he said.

In Martinborough, at the southern end of the North Island, Pinot Noir growers were delighted to have a decent sized harvest this year after protracted cold and frost destroyed the entire crop at some sites in 2007. The 2008 growing season was warm, with little frost or rain, and vintners expect the Pinots to be middleweights, with supple tannins and good balance.

On the east coast of the North Island in Hawkes Bay, a region best known for Chardonnay, Merlot-based blends and Syrah, vintners faced more difficulties. Though some producers battled spring frost, warm weather during flowering resulted in a generally large crop set. Summer was fairly humid, which elevated botrytis pressure when intermittent rains occurred in March and April. Rod Easthope, winemaker at Craggy Range, likes the silkiness of his Merlot, an early-ripening variety, but later-ripening varieties such as Syrah required "selective hand picking to ensure only good fruit made it into the fermenter … Those that weathered the rain successfully and could delay harvest will make concentrated wine."

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