‘“Challenging” is the word you’ll hear from everyone,’ a wine company executive told me shortly after the 2017 vintage. ‘What was the problem?’ asked Pegasus Bay in its Spring 2017 newsletter. ‘Quite simply, rain, and too much of it.’
In Marlborough, where nearly 80 per cent of the country’s grapes were harvested, some fruit rotted on the vines, when the remnants of two cyclones dumped torrential rain in early April. However, top-end producers, who picked their grapes earlier, reported Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of ‘outstanding’ quality.
At 396,000 tonnes, 2017 was our third-largest vintage, trailing only the record 2014 and 2016 harvests. Hawke’s Bay, the second-largest wine region, produced 9 per cent of the crop, followed by Gisborne with 4 per cent. Central Otago produced about 2 per cent of the country’s wine, as did Nelson and Canterbury.
Around the country, a generally warm spring was followed by a cool, dry start to the summer. February, however, was markedly wetter than usual in Marlborough, Gisborne and – especially – Hawke’s Bay. In early autumn, north-westerly winds dumped record high rainfall in the upper North Island, while south-easterly airflows over the South Island brought cool, wet conditions to east coast regions. April – the core harvest month – experienced ‘more north-easterly wind flow than normal,’ reported NIWA, ‘bringing with it moist tropical air masses and record-high rainfall for parts of the North Island. . . . This pattern also led to a very wet month for the northern and eastern South Island.’
Most of the regions’ winegrowers had to battle exceptionally wet weather before the harvest, which slowed ripening and encouraged the spread of botrytis rot. Quality-focused growers, who crop their vines lightly, ripened their grapes relatively early, but for those aiming for a bumper crop, there was no ‘get out of jail’ card. Some grape-growers had their unripe fruit rejected by the wineries; others picked nothing at all.
In Auckland, red-wine varieties ‘really bore the brunt of the challenging weather,’ says the Northern Winegrowers Association, and were ‘somewhat diluted’. The Gisborne Herald reported crop losses due to the adverse autumn weather, but after very selective picking, producers were still bullish about wine quality.
In Hawke’s Bay, a favourably warm, dry summer was followed by a miserable autumn. A top producer reported ‘pretty good’ Chardonnay and Merlot, but Syrah was ‘a struggle’. Grape-grower Xan Harding predicted some top wines would emerge, ‘but not as many as in 2013 to 2016’.
In Marlborough, ‘it was a rough ride,’ reported Winepress, the local industry magazine, ‘that resulted in lower brix [natural grape sugar levels], disease pressure, and reduced harvest expectations for many.’ Spy Valley reported ‘quite solid’ Sauvignon Blanc and ‘lovely’ Pinot Gris. Nautilus expects its Sauvignon Blancs to be ‘slightly more restrained than some years, but delightful to drink and unmistakably Marlborough’.
The most upbeat reports flowed from Central Otago, where after a very cool, windy summer, but favourable autumn, most winegrowers reported harvesting small crops of disease-free, ripely flavoured Pinot Noir.
2017 Regional Vintage Report
The two northernmost regions, Auckland (934 tonnes) and Northland (121 tonnes), together accounted for less than 0.3 per cent of the national grape harvest.
‘Overall, temperatures were cooler than normal,’ according to the Northern Winegrowers Association, ‘with more wind and cloud cover than average.’ A wet, cool spring triggered ‘a moderate flowering, resulting in fairly loose clusters and lower [grape] yields’.
Summer was described by Kumeu River as ‘quite ordinary’, with maximum temperatures of 26°C, compared to the usual peaks of 30°C. However, on 1 February, a fire ban was in place in Northland. ‘January and February were beautiful, building up the colours and phenolics,’ enthused Frenchmans Hill Estate, on Waiheke Island. ‘Approaching the harvest, things looked good.’
In early autumn, however, a slow-moving subtropical low brought ‘several extreme rainfall events’, reported Northern Winegrowers. Warkworth recorded its third-highest ever March rainfall. On 28 March, Heron’s Flight, at Matakana, declared: ‘We’ve had more rain these past couple of weeks than we’ve had in 30 years at this time.’
There was no let-up in mid-autumn, when Warkworth recorded its wettest April on record. Pinot Gris and Chardonnay showed ‘the effect of dilution,’ says Northern Winegrowers, ‘with lower than usual sugar levels and low acidity as well.’ Red-wine varieties ‘really bore the brunt of the challenging weather . . .’.
On Waiheke Island, though, Frenchmans Hill reported its vineyards on steep, well-drained sites performed well. ‘We got the white grapes off before the big rains.’ Red-wine varieties were harvested with lower brixes (natural sugar levels), but no splitting. ‘The colours and aromas are rich; there are no issues with concentration. Syrah looks really good.’
At 16,338 tonnes, Gisborne growers picked 4.3 per cent of the national grape crop. After a very positive start to the season, expectations were high by the end of summer, but a damp autumn triggered a rushed harvest.
Bud-burst started in mid-September with ‘fantastic spring weather,’ reported James Millton. ‘Conditions were warm and dry.’ However, an extended period of flowering ‘resulted in variable fruit set,’ according to Villa Maria, with lots of ‘hen and chicken’ – large and small berries – on the same bunch.
Following an exceptionally dry January, by 1 February a total fire ban was in place. In mid-February, Villa Maria stated that ‘December and January have both been very dry and the season has continued to be very warm.’ At the end of summer, though, NIWA reported the region’s total monthly February rainfall had been well above average.
Autumn began with a warm, wet March. By 15 March, Gisborne Winegrowers noted that due to heavy rain, ‘we have not been able to wait for perfect ripeness’. April – the region’s fourth-wettest on record – brought well over double the average rainfall.
On 7 April, the Gisborne Herald reported that for some growers, ‘the weather got the better of the crops before they could be harvested’. Winemaker Steve Voysey described his early season grapes for sparkling wines and Pinot Gris as ‘outstanding . . . but dampness in the ground meant we struggled to get the full brix’.
‘It won’t go down in history as the best vintage of the decade,’ admitted Matawhero, ‘but we feel we have a strong line-up of wines.’ At Millton, the wet weather at harvest led to ‘a very selective pick, which delivered significantly lower yields, while maintaining great flavours and balance’.
‘We will still see some great wines from the vintage, but not as many as 2013 to 2016,’ admits Xan Harding, one of Hawke’s Bay’s most prominent grape-growers. At 33,679 tonnes, the region’s crop was 8.8 per cent of the national harvest and significantly smaller than 2016 (42,958 tonnes).
After a cool spring, north-westerly winds gave the region ‘very mild daytime temperatures’ in early summer, according to Hawke’s Bay Wine, ‘while the rest of New Zealand struggled with below-average temperatures’. In late January, Harding told the New Zealand Herald that ‘so far the growing season has been as close to perfect as we could wish for’.
After a very dry January, a total fire ban was in place at the start of February. ‘It could have been a stunner,’ says Chris Scott, senior winemaker at Church Road, about the 2017 crop, after ‘lots of days over 30°C in January and early February’. But after three days of heavy rain in the second half of the month, February’s rainfall was more than double the long-term average.
Autumn ‘was a miserable end to the season,’ according to Hawke’s Bay Wine. March was warm but very wet, NIWA reported. In April, Hastings recorded its third-highest ever rainfall for the month – more than double the long-term average.
Babich reported ‘lower brix levels than usual’, but also ‘no green notes in the Cabernets’. The winemaker for one of the biggest companies views 2017 as ‘challenging’, but better than 2011 and 2012. ‘Harvest was very wet, but we had a fantastic summer. Chardonnay looks good. Reds were a mixed bag, with pretty good Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels, but Syrah was a struggle.’
For both Chardonnay and Merlot, he expected good wines in the middle tiers, but doubted the company’s most prestigious labels would appear from 2017.
At 3822 tonnes, Wairarapa winegrowers harvested just 1 per cent of the national grape crop. ‘Unfortunately, the season has not been ideal,’ admitted Palliser Estate, ‘and in summary has been very challenging.’
A dry spring was followed by a ‘quite poor’ summer, says Big Sky, at Martinborough. By the end of March, one well-established producer said everyone was ‘a bit nervous down here, waiting for the sporadic drizzle to stop’.
In autumn, Martinborough and Gladstone, in the northern Wairarapa, had their wettest Aprils on record. As early as 2 April, Dry River reported ‘managing one of our more challenging vintages in recent history’.
On 11 April, Brodie Estate, in Martinborough, reported summer drizzle has ‘created perfect conditions for powdery mildew. . . . The rain is causing problems with an increase in botrytis and the weather preventing picking. As soon as we get some dry days, all the fruit will need to be picked.’
Further north, Gladstone Vineyard predicted ‘subtle, lower in alcohol’ wines from the 2017 vintage.
‘To say the grape harvest of 2017 threw out some challenges would be an understatement,’ says Waimea Estate, one of Nelson’s largest wine producers. At 8540 tonnes, the region’s winegrowers processed just over 2 per cent of the national grape crop.
‘Spring was basically free of cold nights and frosts, allowing the vines a great start,’ noted New Zealand Winegrower. But Villa Maria described early summer as ‘very unsettled’, followed by ‘significant’ rain in January. At the end of summer, Mahana Estates reported that ‘low temperatures and strong winds have been the prevailing weather conditions. . . . Normal bunch numbers have been produced, but the berry numbers are low on those bunches.’
In autumn, a damp March was followed by a notably wet April, with at least twice the usual rainfall. On 4 April, Seifried Estate told Stuff ‘the grapes are fairly fragile, after all the rain they’ve had. . .’. Brightwater Vineyard was reported to have rushed to bring in its grapes – apart from the later-ripening varieties, Riesling and Merlot – although the fruit was ‘nice and clean’ and ‘fully ripe’.
At 302,396 tonnes, the region’s growers picked their third-biggest harvest, about 8 per cent smaller than the record 2014 crop. ‘Vintage 2017 was one of the most challenging Marlborough’s wine industry has experienced,’ acknowledged Winepress, ‘with the major November earthquake [which caused two deaths], inclement summer and extraordinary January winds, followed by a series of major rain events during a drawn-out and humid harvest. It was a rough ride that resulted in lower brix, disease pressure and reduced harvest expectations for many.’
Spring started with a cloudy, dry September, followed by a warm October and warm, wet November. ‘There was regular rainfall at the beginning of the growing season,’ reported Villa Maria, ‘and elevated soil moisture levels meant canopies generally grew well.’
Summer, however, was ‘a bummer,’ according to Framingham. New Zealand Winegrower reported ‘mixed conditions in December, just as Sauvignon Blanc began to flower. The earlier part of the month was cool and wet, with temperatures and sunshine not emerging until the end. That has resulted in variability in crop levels.’
In the middle of summer, January was warm, sunny, dry and windy. ‘Most of January felt very windy,’ according to Villa Maria, ‘with no let-up from the dry north-westerly winds.’ Wine Marlborough reported ‘the winds sent vines into survival mode, instead of ripening fruit’. According to New Zealand Winegrower, the winds meant ‘spray coverage was less effective, allowing powdery mildew to become a major issue in the humid growing season, and leaving the fruit more susceptible to botrytis infection’.
A total fire ban was in place by 1 February, but although slightly warmer and sunnier than usual, February also proved significantly wetter, with rainfall 44 per cent above the average.
In autumn, heavy rain in mid-March ‘lit the fire,’ according to Wine Marlborough, causing berries to split and allowing botrytis to spread. The warm, but cloudy and damp, March weather also slowed the grapes’ ripening.
April, the key harvest month, was also warm, overcast and wet. ‘April was a month of two distinct halves,’ reported Marlborough Research Centre. ‘The first half of April recorded very high rainfall and little sunshine,’ but the second half of the month proved dry and sunny.
Overall, however, April rainfall in Marlborough was 248 per cent of the long-term average. According to one grower, in early April, a lot of grapes ‘stalled at about 14 brix’ on the vines and were rejected by the wineries. Some growers were reported to be unable to harvest their crops.
Many grapes were harvested at lower ripeness levels than normal. Plant & Food Research, at the Marlborough Research Centre, monitors eight vineyards. ‘In most cases, the blocks would never have been able to achieve 21.5 brix [the usual target for natural grape sugars], due to the disease pressure that forced most blocks to be harvested before optimum maturity.’
However, Wine Marlborough declared quality-focused growers picked ‘clean, lower-brix Sauvignon Blanc fruit with pure aromatics and flavours’. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, harvested before the rain and humidity, were ‘fantastic’.
Nautilus also praised its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as among ‘the best Nautilus has ever made’. The company expects its Sauvignon Blancs to be ‘slightly more restrained than some years, but delightful to drink and unmistakably Marlborough’.
Spy Valley reported its Sauvignon Blanc looked ‘quite solid, considering the conditions. We will see lower alcohol . . . due to earlier picking.’ However, its Pinot Gris showed ‘lovely flavours and richness’.
At 8247 tonnes, Canterbury, including Waipara, produced just 2.1 per cent of the country’s wine in 2017.
After a frost-free spring, according to New Zealand Winegrower, Villa Maria reported that ‘leading into Christmas, the vineyards in Waipara were looking great’. In late summer, NIWA recorded a record dry February in Waipara and Akaroa.
At the start of autumn, Greystone reported ‘very dry conditions’, small berries on the vines and very little disease pressure. But April proved far wetter than expected, with NIWA stations at Waipara West and Akaroa, on Banks Peninsula, both recording their second-highest ever rainfall for April.
On 27 April, Greystone enthused the harvest had been ‘really good. No humidity after the rain, so no disease pressure.’ On 8 May, Bishop’s Head reported ‘some outstanding sticky sweet wines’.
Reflecting on the vintage, Pegasus Bay observed that ‘prolonged humidity tends to attract fungal growth on ripe fruit. . . . We had to do a lot of extra work in the vineyard, removing any substandard fruit, and stringently triaging [sorting] what was brought to the winery to make certain only the best was used to make wine. . . . We achieved good ripeness and concentration in our wines . . . although the quantity is well down.’
2017 was the lightest grape crop in Central Otago since 2012 – even smaller than the 2008 vintage – but quality expectations are high. The region’s ‘southerly, mountainous location afforded us great protection against the unsettled late summer and early autumn weather,’ says Felton Road. ‘Consequently, we were fortunately never challenged by rain or grey skies leading up to or during harvest.’
‘We had the worst-ever start to the season,’ reported Chard Farm. Villa Maria says spring was ‘very cool with late flowering and a couple of frost events’.
In December, ‘windy weather during flowering took its toll on yields,’ according to Felton Road. In early to mid-summer, December and January were both cooler than average, says Quartz Reef. Wooing Tree summed up summer as ‘fairly dismal, with strong winds and cold temperatures’.
But at the end of a dry March, one winery told me: ‘Surprise, surprise, I think we are going to have a good vintage after all down here.’ On 5 April, Rippon Vineyard reported ‘beautiful weather in March and the fruit is tasting sensational’.
It was a very cool growing season. At Alexandra, Grasshopper Rock reported its coolest December to March period for at least 15 years. Misha’s Vineyard experienced its coolest-ever season – even colder than 2009.
Most producers reported a later harvest than usual. ‘While yields for the Pinot Noir were low due to the light bunch weights, the flavour ripeness was exceptional, so this year we harvested at lower sugar levels,’ says Amisfield. ‘All indications are for a beautiful year for Pinot Noir.’
‘Quality across our three varieties is superb with lovely balance, depth and focus to all the wines,’ enthused Felton Road. ‘There’s little doubt that 2017 will make rather profound wines.’ Grasshopper Rock also predicted ‘really interesting and complex wine’.