The new season’s wines are pouring onto the shelves. After the rain-disrupted 2017 and 2018 harvests, what can we expect from 2019?
The news is good, overall. During the country’s third-hottest summer on record, with low rainfall in January and February, soil moisture levels in the vineyards dropped, reducing foliage growth and encouraging the vines to pour their energy into ripening their grapes.
In early March, when most harvesters swung into action, the weather stayed hot and drier than usual in east coast wine regions. April proved a mixed bag, with higher than average rainfall in Marlborough and Central Otago, but the dryness persisted in Hawke’s Bay.
Every vintage is a great one, if you believe some winemakers – who are keen to sell their wine – but Hawke’s Bay’s growers seem especially excited about 2019. ‘I’ve never seen a season with the threesome of Chardonnay, Syrah and the Cabernet family all shining so well in one season,’ enthused Warren Gibson, of Trinity Hill. Others in the region have described 2019 as ‘the greatest’, ‘superb’ and even ‘sublime’.
In Central Otago, a wet spring and warm summer, with temperatures hitting 32.8°C in Cromwell on Christmas Day, was followed by an exceptionally hot March but cool, wet April. One winery noted others ‘have been fighting powdery mildew and botrytis, due to the heavier rainfall’, but another predicted ‘excellent’ wine.
In Marlborough – source of about three-quarters of the country’s wine – wet, cold weather during the vines’ flowering reduced their potential crops. During January and February, the region had high temperatures, plentiful sunshine and just 12 mm of rain, compared to 261 mm in 2018.
After the exceptionally hot, dry summer, the harvest began early, but March rainfall proved the highest since 1984 and April was also wetter than normal. Due to the early water stress, many grapes were picked unripe, according to one viticulturist, who described quality as a ‘mixed bag’.
However, several producers reported small crops of extremely promising Pinot Noir. With Sauvignon Blanc, reported Villa Maria, the procession of warm days and nights meant a close watch needed to be kept, to preserve the fruit’s fresh, appetising acidity. Saint Clair described its grapes’ flavours as ‘incredible’.
2019 Regional Vintage Report
Auckland (and Northland)
The two northernmost regions, Auckland and Northland, accounted for just 0.5 per cent of the national grape crop. However, it was still a bumper harvest – for Auckland growers, the grape crop was 101 per cent heavier than in 2018, and in Northland, production soared by 183 per cent.
Spring kicked off with a dry but cloudy September, followed by a dry October and warm, wet November. Goldie Estate, on Waiheke Island, described spring as ‘warm and windy. . . . Flowering and fruit set took place in early November, between rain events, which led to an abundance of fruit . . .’
Early summer was very wet, with Auckland experiencing above-average temperatures and record December rainfall. January, however, was notably warm and dry, with NIWA stations at Whenuapai (in West Auckland) and Kerikeri (in Northland) recording some of their highest temperatures since 1945. By February, which brought only 30 per cent of normal rainfall, the regions’ soils were severely dry.
In autumn, the weather stayed fine: a very warm, dry March was followed by an unusually sunny, drier than average April. The Landing, in the Bay of Islands, reported ‘a huge harvest by our standards of just over 58 tonnes, around four times what we brought in the year before. The 2019 vintage was exceptional for us.’
Te Motu, on Waiheke Island, reported on 28 March that ‘2019 could be one of the greats. . . . The perfect summer conditions allowed ripening to accelerate’, yielding ‘juicy, sweet and concentrated Malbec’. At Goldie Estate, where the harvest began with Chardonnay on 5 March, ‘the grapes were harvested at optimal ripeness, retaining fine natural acidity and delicate aromatics’. In the barrel, the estate’s reds displayed both ‘concentration’ and ‘finesse’.
At 16,238 tonnes (25 per cent more than in 2018), Gisborne’s growers picked 4.1 per cent of the national harvest. Quite apart from the distinct lift in production, expectations were also high for wines of memorable quality.
After a wet spring and moderate December, January was the region’s sunniest and second warmest since records began in 1905. In February, parts of Gisborne experienced above average rainfall, but March was hot – the fourth warmest since 1905. Gisvin, a contract winemaking company, praised the 2019 crop as ‘fantastic’, attributing the quality to a ‘good, long, hot, dry ripening period’.
Indevin, a huge contract winemaker, reported a ‘really good’ vintage. ‘It was quite dry early on and then we had a little bit of moisture, but rainfall was down on the long-term average. We got everything in at optimum ripeness, with a good amount of sugar and flavours, and the aromatics are very good too.’
Annie Millton, of The Millton Vineyard, was also highly enthusiastic in her vintage report. ‘Chardonnay has shone again. Our Viognier was absolutely beautiful. The Syrah was superb.’
At 37,173 tonnes, Hawke’s Bay’s grape crop was 9 per cent down on 2018, accounting for 9.3 per cent of the national harvest. All indicators point to wines of exceptional quality.
Spring got off to a wet start – Hastings recorded its second-wettest September on record. By the end of October, soil moisture levels were below normal, but November brought above-average temperatures and rainfall.
Summer kicked off with near-average temperatures in December. January was extremely warm (3.5°C above average in Hastings) but wetter than usual, based on several days of rain in the middle of the month. Gordon Russell, of Esk Valley, reported in mid-January that although the vines’ flowering had gone well, heat and humidity were creating a lot of work, leaf trimming and plucking. In February, however, the weather was warmer and drier than normal.
In autumn, the warmth continued, with March temperatures 1.5°C above average at Napier, and a low total rainfall of 18 mm, compared to the normal 50 mm. In April, temperatures were near average, but the weather stayed drier than usual.
‘It was a late season,’ says Chris Wilcox, of Ash Ridge, who began picking Chardonnay in early May, a month later than in 2018. ‘It was a very, very good vintage – very wet until after Christmas, then completely dry. You could pick whenever you liked and you could let the flavours really come through.’ Church Road viticulturist Claire Pinker agreed, stating Chardonnay was being left on the vines ‘a lot longer than last year, so . . . the flavours would be given time to develop fully.’
Russell believes 2019 is ‘going to be a legend. All varieties are superb.’ Hugh Crichton, of Vidal, was especially excited by his Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Te Awa winemaker Richard Painter pointed to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon as ‘real highlights’. Warren Gibson, of Trinity Hill, was also extremely upbeat, lauding the trio of Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernets. Julian Grounds, winemaker at Craggy Range, was the most enthusiastic of all, praising the 2019 vintage as ‘sublime’.
At 4390 tonnes, Wairarapa winegrowers harvested 4 per cent less than in 2018, accounting for just 1.1 per cent of the national grape crop.
Spring brought devastating frosts. Te Hera Estate, a 5-hectare vineyard at Te Muna, near Martinborough, lost half of its potential grape crop in October. Martinborough Vineyard got off more lightly, reporting its coldest frost since November 2006 had caused a fruit loss of 5 to 10 per cent. ‘Some parts of town got hit fairly hard, whilst other parts were untouched.’
Summer began with near-average temperatures in December, followed by a favourably dry January (the driest on record at Masterton), and a cool February (Martinborough had its third-lowest daily maximum air temperatures since 1986). Escarpment Vineyard viewed the region’s summer as ‘ideal, with no disease pressure. We started and finished vintage earlier than ever before,’ due to ‘large canopies driving small crops, so things ripened rapidly and very successfully’.
Escarpment Vineyard reported that temperatures over the growing season were 15 per cent warmer than the long-term average. Pinot Noir was picked in ‘fantastic’ condition, with ‘deep, ripe colours, loads of fruit and soft, ripe tannins’. The winery also praised its Chardonnay as ‘classic’, with ‘very clean, ripe flavours and adequate acidity’; and Pinot Gris showed ‘real depth of flavour, edging into Gewürztraminer flavour profiles’.
At 12,370 tonnes of grapes (36 per cent more than in 2018), Nelson winemakers harvested 3.1 per cent of the national crop. Nelson Winegrowers, the regional association, reported that ‘vintage 2019 has been a great one. . . . There are some awesome wines taking shape in tank and barrel.’
Patrick Stowe, of Rimu Grove, described the growing season as ‘one of extremes – an early spring with early flowering, followed by a hot, dry summer, culminated in the earliest harvest ever’.
Following a dry November, soil moisture levels were below average by the start of summer.
December brought warm, sunny weather, and January proved notably sunny, warm and dry. In February, the region recorded just 9 per cent of its usual rainfall, causing extreme soil dryness.
‘Drought conditions persisted over January and February,’ Stowe reported, ‘with water restrictions for those irrigating on the plains. Older vines in the Moutere were surprisingly unaffected by these conditions, with healthy canopies and little vine stress.’ However, unirrigated young vines didn’t fare as well, ‘suffering defoliation and fruit dehydration towards the end of the season’.
In early autumn, Nelson was officially classified on 12 March as suffering a medium-scale drought. After a week of moderate rain in early to mid March, which freshened up the vines, April also proved drier than normal. ‘Overall, yields were close to average or better,’ says Stowe, ‘with great fruit ripeness. . . . The resulting wines exhibit good balance, fruit concentration and varietal expression. There is a quiet optimism among the winemakers for one of the best vintages we’ve seen in a while!’
Leading into the 2019 harvest, Marlborough’s winegrowers were hoping that 2019 was ‘not going to be a repeat of the vintages in 2017 and 2018, with the problems that the rain over those two vintages caused,’ observed Rob Agnew, a scientist at Plant and Food Research (Marlborough). They got their wish. In January and February 2018, Marlborough had a total rainfall of 261.4 mm, the highest on record. In January and February 2019, the region’s rainfall totalled just 11.8 mm.
At 305,467 tonnes, Marlborough’s growers handled 76.6 per cent of New Zealand’s total grape harvest. Their fourth-largest crop to date was 2.5 per cent lighter than in 2018 (313,038 tonnes), and well below the record 329,571 tonnes harvested in 2014.
Spring began with a dry, sunny September, followed by a warm, sunny and dry October and warm, but cloudy and wet, November. According to Cloudy Bay, wet, cold weather during the vines’ flowering reduced crops, especially of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Hans Herzog also reported that some of our varieties ‘flowered when the weather was not favourable, with rain and cold gluing the tiny flowers together, causing poor fruit set and very little crop’.
In summer, a warm, wet, cloudy December was followed by a sunny, exceptionally warm and dry January. Mean air temperatures at Blenheim were the second-highest since 1932. With rainfall just 8 per cent of the monthly long-term average, by the end of January, Winepress reported, ‘there was almost no available moisture left in the topsoil’.
February was also notably warm, sunny and dry. Blenheim reported its fourth-highest mean maximum air temperatures since 1932 (2.3°C above average), with just 12 per cent of its normal rainfall.
By late February, according to Winepress, there was ‘a long list of water rights switched off across the region, some almost continuously since late January. . . . Some vineyards are trucking water from town to try to save their vines.’ Wairau River noted in March that ‘where water restrictions are biting, increased [grape] sugars are due to “shrivel”, rather than ripening. Some vines appear to be shutting down.’
Overall, Marlborough’s summer rainfall was 46 per cent of the long-term average (despite the wet December). Summer was also the fourth-equal hottest on record for Blenheim since 1932, with 16 days above 30°C (six more than the previous highest total of 10, recorded in the summer of 1989–90).
In early autumn, the government announced a medium-scale drought classification for the region. However, the weather changed abruptly – by the end of the month, Marlborough had experienced its wettest March since 1984, with total rainfall 237 per cent of the long-term average. April also brought above-average rainfall.
The year 2019 was a notably early harvest. Rob Agnew, of Plant and Food Research, noted that some companies ‘harvested some blocks of Pinot Noir for table wine in the last week of February, the earliest start they had ever experienced’. Cloudy Bay, in Winepress, reported it started picking Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for sparkling wine on 16 February, ‘two weeks before a typical season would kick off’.
In terms of wine quality, hopes are high. One viticulturist noted that ‘a lot of very low brix [sugar level] fruit was picked, due to the water stress’. Helen Morrison, Villa Maria senior Marlborough winemaker, observed in New Zealand Winegrower that the warm growing season meant ‘the wines don’t have as much acidity as they normally would have. While we will make some very good Sauvignons, with good palate weight, I am not sure they will have that striking acidity we are used to.’
Brenton O’Riley, a grower/viticulturist of Giesen, made similar comments about Sauvignon Blanc. ‘Probably not as much aromatics as the winemakers would like . . . but they have good texture and palate weight.’
Two Rivers on 29 March reported ‘an amazing vintage – pristine fruit, small berries and great concentration’. Hans Herzog was equally enthusiastic: ‘We could not be happier with the quality.’ Saint Clair described its grapes’ flavours and concentration as ‘incredible’.
‘If there is a standout variety from Marlborough this year, it is Pinot Noir,’ according to New Zealand Winegrower. Yields were down, due to adverse weather during the vines’ flowering, but Villa Maria reported the berries had ‘thick skins and intense colour and flavour’. James Healy, of Dog Point Vineyard, says Pinot Noir was picked in ‘the best condition I have ever seen’.
At 8535 tonnes of grapes (a 24 per cent lighter crop than in 2018), Canterbury – including its dominant sub-region, Waipara, in North Canterbury – produced 2.1 per cent of the country’s wine in 2019.
Spring was cool and wet in North Canterbury, with a cool September followed by a wetter than average October. In November, the NIWA station at Waipara West recorded its second-highest rainfall since records began in 1973.
After a wet start to the summer in December, ‘at the beginning of the year, somewhere, a switch was turned on,’ reported Dunnolly Estate, at Waipara. ‘It has been HOT, HOT, HOT, and DRY, DRY, DRY!’
In January, Cheviot, north of Waipara, had its highest mean maximum air temperatures since 1982 (3.7°C above average). Rainfall across North Canterbury was well below normal. February brought similarly warm, dry weather.
Autumn opened with a warm March – Waipara West recorded 32.4°C on 5 March. Further south, in March Christchurch had well above average temperatures. ‘The season has been absolutely amazing,’ enthused Dunnolly Estate on 21 March, ‘giving consistency of ripening and no disease pressures. The best season we have experienced in at least 10 years.’
At 11,909 tonnes, 2019 was a record crop in Central and North Otago (the Waitaki Valley), exceeding the 2018 vintage by over 3 per cent, but it still accounted for only 3 per cent of the national grape harvest.
The growing season was ‘bookended by frosts’ and ‘not without its challenges,’ according to Nick Paulin, chair of the regional association, Central Otago Winegrowers. In spring, a wet September was followed by severe frosts in mid-October, and a cool, extremely wet November.
The frost-fighting peaked on the nights of 12 and 13 October. New Zealand Winegrower noted that ‘an earlier than usual bud burst had left vines vulnerable’. Some young plants were ‘nuked’, and shoot damage was also reported at sites usually viewed as frost-free.
In early summer, ‘December flowering was patchy and drawn out,’ reported New Zealand Winegrower. However, the two driest locations in the country were Clyde and Cromwell (where temperatures hit 32.8°C on Christmas Day). A hotter than usual January, with average rainfall, was followed by a significantly cooler February.
In early autumn, ‘March surprised by being warmer than February,’ observed Grasshopper Rock, at Alexandra, ‘bringing the harvest forward by about 10 days to 5 April.’ Cromwell recorded its highest mean maximum air temperatures for March since records began in 1949 – 3.7°C above average.
April, however, was colder and wetter than normal. ‘Late rains which arrived right before harvest time increased berry size and saved growers from what was looking to be a leaner crop,’ according to New Zealand Winegrower. Several April frosts meant some grapes had to be harvested for rosé, rather than red wine. Misha’s Vineyard, at Bendigo, noted on 18 April that some vineyards ‘have been fighting powdery mildew and botrytis, due to the heavier rainfall during the season’.
Predictions about the likely quality of Central Otago wines from 2019 have varied. Misha’s Vineyard was ‘delighted with the quality (and quantity) of fruit’, describing 2019 as ‘a great season’. Grant Taylor, of Valli, praised 2019 as ‘a stellar year for whites’, and Grasshopper Rock expects ‘the 2019 grapes will make excellent wine’.
However, New Zealand Winegrower noted that ‘some vineyards saw the effects of larger berry size in wines which lacked a bit of concentration’. Terra Sancta, at Bannockburn, predicted the 2019 harvest will yield wines somewhere between the concentrated 2017 vintage and the lighter 2018s.