Two weeks after Cyclone Gabrielle devastated the North Island of New Zealand, residents are still assessing the destruction. The storm is already considered the costliest tropical cyclone on record in the Southern Hemisphere, with damages estimated to be upward of $8 billion. The cyclone, which killed at least 11 people, hit the farming and winegrowing regions of the North Island particularly hard.
For winemakers in areas such as Hawkes Bay and Gisborne, the timing could hardly be worse. Harvest is just weeks away. Some vineyards were flooded, and in certain areas, tons of mud carried by the waters buried vines and pushed into buildings, leaving bottles and equipment trapped under heavy muck.
But many New Zealand winemakers aren’t eager to put the spotlight on their losses. "We feel that the loss of life and destruction to homes and personal businesses is so much bigger than the wine story," said Warren Gibson, winemaker at Trinity Hill in Hawkes Bay. His somber tone is consistent among the island’s winegrowing community—some winemakers are reluctant to go on the record to report damage, focusing instead on the loss of human life and damages to their communities.
A tropical cyclone is an organized, rotating storm system that originates over warm tropical or subtropical waters. Known as hurricanes in the northern Atlantic and typhoons in the northwestern Pacific, the storms are cyclones in the Indian and southwestern Pacific oceans and are just as deadly. New Zealand is no stranger to storms, but Gabrielle was especially dangerous.
While vintners were aware the cyclone was en route, no one could have predicted the volume of water that came with Gabrielle—all days before harvest was expected to begin. The total rainfall was between 14 and 18 inches, which included a 24-hour period of downpours, from Feb. 13 to 14, that saw more than three times as much rain as the February average.
The cyclone comes after a January storm that caused widespread flooding. Gabrielle’s high winds and waters washed away coastal roads and destroyed bridges, while landslides created more damage. On Feb. 14, the country declared a national state of emergency for just the third time in its history. Early estimates are that 10,000 New Zealand residents were left homeless in the wake of Gabrielle. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins called the cyclone the country’s "biggest natural disaster" of the 21st century.
Nick Picone, chief winemaker at Sacred Hill in Hawkes Bay, reports that approximately 200 acres of Sacred Hill's vines were "catastrophically affected." He says it’s unknown how much of those grapes will be harvestable.
"Some vineyards have been lost completely under silt, like our Dartmoor vineyard," explained Picone. "Approximately 37 acres there have gone completely under and will not be recoverable. This was Sacred Hill’s first vineyard, which was planted in the 1980s. The costs and benefits of trying to recover versus replanting must be carefully considered."
The New Zealand Herald reports that winemaker Philip Barber, using a shovel, dug out 12,000 bottles of wine at Petane Wines in Esk Valley. The wine was stuck in a storage room behind nearly 10 feet of silt and mud. The bottles will be tested to make sure the wine is ok and hopefully auctioned off to recoup costs.
Harvest in a disaster zone
The surrounding devastation is another factor, with winemakers unable to reach some vineyards or move equipment. "We are also currently cut off from our Rifleman’s vineyard farther up the valley, with no bridge access across the river," said Picone. "We are working on scenarios for how to get this fruit out of the vineyard in the next week or two. Vineyards that were flooded but not up to the fruit zone should still be harvestable, but any vineyard that was flooded up to the fruit (evident by silt deposits in the bunch zone) will need careful testing to ensure the fruit is safe to harvest. We don’t have any vineyards in this position."
Despite worst-case scenarios, Kiwi winemakers are careful to not discount the vintage entirely. The region’s largest wine region of Marlborough, on the South Island, wasn’t affected dramatically. As for the North Island, "This week, those who are able are assessing vineyards, fruit and looking to the upcoming harvest, while assisting those who are less well off," said Gibson. "For many, there is still good fruit out there. The vintage will be difficult, but it will not be impossible. Hawkes Bay wine folk will rally and there will be good wines produced."
Julian Grounds, chief winemaker at Craggy Range in Havelock North, is counting his blessings. "From a Craggy Range perspective, we escaped with no damage to vineyards and buildings and consider ourselves very lucky," Grounds said. "This was also the case for the wider Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa wine regions, as the river protecting the area held its bank but burst farther down.”
"Unfortunately, around some of the areas located within 15 to 30 minutes [from us], flooding has caused significant damage," he added. "And that’s an absolutely devastating outcome, as [it] will likely mean replanting. The region of Esk Valley was one of the hardest hit, so our thoughts are with them."
Grounds adds that Craggy Range is approximately one week from harvesting Chardonnay, and he is hopeful the current dry, sunny weather will continue. Picking dates were already pushed back by a few weeks compared to 2019–2021 harvests, due to a cold and wet growing year.
Paul Brajkovich of Chardonnay powerhouse Kumeu River reported, "We are relatively unscathed in Kumeu. The cyclone came through last week; the flooding did not reach the winery, but the winds blew over a few trees and at least helped dry things out a bit. Coastal areas close to us, such as Muriwai, Piha and Bethells, have suffered quite a bit of damage, with slips and a number of houses now uninhabitable." Brajkovich said a Dartmoor grower, whom the winery typically purchases grapes from, had to escape floodwaters of up to 13 feet. It’s believed their crop was destroyed.
He adds that Kumeu River started harvesting Pinot Gris and will begin picking Chardonnay next week. "This is not the fabulous vintages of 2019 and 2020, but at least the weather is fine and we are getting some decent stuff."
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