New Zealand vintners are going to remember 2018 as one for the record books. Matt Stafford of Craggy Range points out that the 2017–'18 growing season included the hottest summer on record in New Zealand. Many regions faced plenty of humidity and a lack of spring winds.
Stafford says that Martinborough's growing season can be divided by the calendar year. The North Island enjoyed dry weather through December, followed by periodic rainfall in January, bringing green vineyards and a lot of humidity. The grape skins became fragile during the humid ripening period, but vintners are reporting savory, muscular Pinot Noirs.
The North Island's Hawkes Bay area reported the least dramatic conditions, despite the warm and wet weather. Harvest started early for some, but Warren Gibson of Trinity Hills describes a long, leisurely harvest. He says the year produced concentrated Chardonnays and aromatic and powerful Syrah and Cabernets.
Soggy on the South Island
On the South Island, Marlborough also experienced heat and humidity, and broke even more records. According to the winemaking team at Dog Point, December was the second-warmest on record, and January was the warmest in more than 60 years. Then February brought the most recorded rainfall.
"As February approached it was looking like an early harvest, and the superb flowering conditions had elevated expectations toward a sizable crop," said Kevin Judd of Greywacke. "However, two ex-Tropical cyclones, Fehi and Gita, made unwelcome appearances … bringing considerable rainfall." The heavy rains delayed harvest. Most vintners began picking in early or mid-March, before rain started again at the end of that month.
Simon Barker of Barkers Marque Wines points out that 2018 was dominated by the La Niña weather pattern, which means warmer temperatures for New Zealand. He called it a season with two halves: up to flowering and fruit set it was, "near perfect as possible, with great sunshine hours, temperatures and nicely timed rain events." But after that, he says, conditions became more challenging, with not so nicely timed rain events and an increased risk of botrytis. Winemakers report the importance of using sorting tables to eliminate both botrytis-afflicted and shriveled berries. Yields were down slightly because of those concerns.
Despite the challenges, vintners are reporting concentrated wines with plenty of character. "Very happy with the intake, particularly the Chardonnay, which amazed us because of the February rain we had," said Ivan Sutherland of Dogpoint.
Stafford adds that aging vineyards are a secret weapon in tricky harvests. "As the vine age increases in Marlborough, we seem to see Sauvignon Blanc flavor ripeness occurring at much lower sugar levels. The 22 Brix of 10 years ago is now today's 20 Brix."
Just as in the rest of the country, Central Otago had one of the warmest seasons on record. The warm and dry weather meant an unusual amount of early-season growth. But a month or two before harvest, the weather went from record highs to a sudden cooling, including snow on the low hills surrounding some vineyards.
"Normally this would be a serious concern, but as we were so well-advanced with the season, the coolest and wettest February since 2004 turned out to be a real savior for vintage 2018," explained Blair Walter of Felton Road. "Because of the extreme dry conditions in the months preceding, the wet February did not cause any notable disease issues or excessive swelling, but thankfully assisted with slowing down the ripening process."
That led to an early harvest, for some the earliest start to date. Felton Road began picking Feb. 28. Mt. Difficulty started March 6. Many were done within a window of three weeks.
The resulting wines are ripe, and slightly lower in acidity, vintners report. But Walter is certain the wines don't carry the hallmark of a "ripe" vintage, as the weather cooled down in the last few weeks before harvest.