2023 Vintage Report

A ‘tale of two islands’ sums up the 2023 vintage in New Zealand.  A severe tropical cyclone, Gabrielle, devastated the North Island from 12-16 February.  After record amounts of rainfall over the growing season, some wineries in northern regions stated their top red-wine labels would not be produced in 2023.  But further south, Marlborough’s growers celebrated a top vintage for Sauvignon Blanc, and in Central Otago, generally low rainfall and warm temperatures produced a large crop of high quality.     

In Auckland, Kumeu River reported ‘one of the more difficult vintages’, yielding 300 tonnes of grapes, rather than the expected 500 tonnes.  Wine quality was expected to be ‘not too bad’. 

Extremely high rainfall in Auckland from late January onwards triggered outbreaks of downy mildew, a fungal disease which defoliates vines by killing their leaves, preventing fruit ripening.  Some wineries lost up to 75 per cent of their crop. 

Puriri Hills, a top red-wine producer in Clevedon, south Auckland, reported a low-yielding harvest, with wines ‘likely to be lighter than preceding years.’   

In Gisborne, which suffered over six times its usual February rainfall, some vineyards simply could not be reached to be harvested.  Due to diseases such as downy mildew and botrytis, crops were partly or wholly destroyed.

‘Before the cyclone hit,’ reported Millton Vineyards, ‘we had already experienced one of the wettest summers…  Continual rain made ripening difficult.’  However, the weather improved in March and Millton is upbeat about the quality of its 2023 Chardonnay.     

Mark Thompson, chief winemaker at GisVin, believes Gisborne lost 40 per cent of its crop to Cyclone Gabrielle.  Thompson reported some ‘good news stories’ about Chardonnay and even some ‘brilliant’ reds, but ‘you cannot take away from the fact that you have a huge amount of compromised aromatic whites.’    

In the country’s second-largest wine region, Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers reported about 25 per cent of the harvest was destroyed by the cyclone.  

Amy Farnsworth, of Amoise Wines, reported that before the cyclone hit, ‘the Hawke’s Bay wine community had been dealing with an extremely wet year already, with high disease pressure and slow brix [sugar] ripening.  The cyclone struck at the beginning of harvest and there have been a lot of people (myself included), having to walk away from fruit and not being able to make their intended styles of wines.’    

At the close of a cool summer, February brought over five times the usual monthly rainfall.   Floods destroyed or damaged vineyards and winery buildings in the Esk Valley, where Petane Wines reported ‘mud to mid-canopy, posts and wires wrapped up in knots.’  Pernod-Ricard NZ declared its inland Omarunui Vineyard, west of Taradale, was ‘slammed’, with no access.      

Winegrowers Tony Bish noted in late February that parts of the region not directly hit by the cyclone had still received ‘way too much rain, which at this time of year is the last thing we want, because we’re quite close to harvest.’       

On February 28, Unison Vineyard reported that ‘our two French full-time workers have gone back to France, following a traumatic roof-top rescue by canoe and helicopter after 36 hours but with all their possessions lost.’  

The good news, says Farnsworth, is that the latter part of the harvest brought ‘very welcome, warm, dry, settled weather, allowing some later-ripening varieties to reach good sugar levels.’  The relatively cool growing season, overall, is expected to yield aromatic wines with fresh acidity and moderate alcohol levels.  Smith & Sheth predicted small amounts of high quality Chardonnay and Syrah, but cautioned that the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon variety generally struggled to ripen fully.     

In the Wairarapa, the very wet season created strong disease pressure, slowing ripening.  Nga Waka, a long-established Martinborough producer, ‘toyed with a few song titles for this vintage report… before settling on: “I can’t stand the rain.”’ 

Borthwick, in the northern Wairarapa, reported ‘some pressures in the vineyard this year, with warmer nights and periodic rains.’ Nga Waka predicted ‘good quality’ whites and rosé, but ‘lighter, pretty’ Pinot Noirs, ‘without the structure and complexity we require for our top labels.’        

Marlborough had a ‘very, very good’ vintage, reported Simon Waghorn, of Astrolabe Wines.  Total rainfall over the September-April growing season was slightly below the long-term average.  Waghorn’s enthusisam reflected the long, slow ripening season, healthy vines without disease pressure, and clean fruit at harvest. 

Spring was ‘crazy’, reported William Hoare, of Novum, early in the season.  ‘About once a week, we have 10-20mm of rain, so everything is growing flat out…’   

Wine Marlborough, the regional organisation, noted ‘the perils of a wet, cool spring and summer.’  Summer ‘had us a little worried,’ admitted Villa Maria, referring to cool, cloudy weather, with regular bouts of rainfall.  But in February, Cyclone Gabrielle left the region almost unscathed.    

In autumn, Waghorn observed, the rains were cool and followed by spells of good weather, without prolonged periods of humidity to aggravate disease. ‘I think all the varieties benefitted from more time on the vines and ripening a bit later.’ 

The weather stabilised in autumn, reported Villa Maria. ‘To our surprise, this has shaped up to be an exceptional vintage for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The grapes were in immaculate condition, with thick skins and crunchy acidity.  We could pick our Sauvignon Blanc without any pressure from adverse weather or declining fruit conditions.’         

Nautilus winemaker Clive Jones estimated the vines’ average yields were about 10 per cent lighter than in 2022.  Greywacke winemaker Richelle Tyney was especially excited by Chardonnay, along with Sauvignon Blanc, ‘which came in clean, with great flavours.’    

In Nelson, Seifried Estate reported a rainy growing season finished with a sunny harvest, yielding ‘really good’ Sauvignon Blanc.  Neudorf was ‘quietly confident’ in its Pinot Noirs.

North Canterbury (including Waipara) received 70 per cent more rain than usual in the three months to mid-April, according to ‘New Zealand Winegrower’. Inland, at Waikari, the potential harvest size was hit by a severe October frost. 

Huw Kinch, winemaker at Pyramid Valley, described 2023 as ‘a tough season.  I hope the weather pattern shifts back to those drier, warmer summers.’ 

In Central Otago, Misha’s Vineyard, at Bendigo, reported the growing season was ‘excellent’, with ‘warm temperatures and very little rainfall.’  The winery reported above-average bunch numbers and berry weights, resulting in ‘a record total crop.’    In late March, a cold, frosty period slowed the grapes’ ripening, stretching the harvest to late April.  After a ‘tough early spring, a kind summer to catch us up and then a difficult autumn to bring us back to earth,’ Grasshopper Rock, near Alexandra, agreed with Misha’s Vineyard.  ‘Overall, we are thrilled with the result.  Crop yields are down slightly on average, but the fruit is outstanding.’