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Frost and poor weather during flowering dramatically reduced the size of New Zealand's 2003 harvest to a level that may be little more than half the previous year's crop. For U.S. consumers, that could mean less Sauvignon Blanc on store shelves in the near future.
North Island regions, such as Hawkes Bay, appear to be the hardest hit. But shortages in the South Island region of Marlborough may decrease the amount of Sauvignon Blanc -- which accounts for about 55 percent of the country's wine exports -- that is available for overseas markets by around 40 percent.
"It was the most testing vintage that I have experienced in the past 20 years," complained John Hancock, founding partner and chief winemaker of Trinity Hill winery in Hawkes Bay. "After being hard hit by a series of early-season frosts, we had to contend with cool weather over the crucial flowering period, a generally cool summer, rain and an early autumn." Red grape varieties did not appear to have suffered as much as whites, according to Hancock.
Kumeu River winemaker Michael Brajkovich described the 2003 vintage as a disappointing year. "Frost damage was greater than we at first suspected," he said. "Although grape sugars were not particularly high, flavors are good, thanks perhaps to a low crop. There will be some good wines and a lot of average wines." Careful selection of grape bunches will allow Kumeu River to produce a small quantity of its acclaimed Chardonnay, added Brajkovich.
Montana, the country's largest wine producer, which markets Brancott in the United States, took the unusual step of issuing a statement warning that grape production would be down around 45 percent from 2002. The company plans to import more bulk wine, change the district of origin for some New Zealand blends, limit the supply of certain wines and possibly increase prices in order to mitigate the damage caused by the small harvest.
Ironically, Central Otago, New Zealand's most southerly wine region and generally its coolest and most frost-prone, escaped most frost damage and has enjoyed a very good season. Otago had normal crop levels and will produce many top wines, according to Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter. "We had a series of small frosts late in the season, but they were not heavy enough to burn the vine leaves," said Walter. "I expect to make top Pinot Noir and Riesling, with our best-ever Chardonnay."
Read last year's harvest report:
Read Harvey Steiman's most recent tasting report on New Zealand:
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