Marlborough winegrowers prepare for El Nino

Wine Marlborough board chairman Clive Jones.

Wine Marlborough board chairman Clive Jones.

Marlborough winegrowers are preparing for the strongest El Nino summer since the extreme 1997/98 event, which cost New Zealand hundreds of millions of dollars in drought-destroyed crops.

In New Zealand, the ocean-driven system typically brings colder, wetter conditions and prevailing westerly winds.

Regions that normally receive higher rainfall become wetter, while dry areas of the country, including Marlborough, are often subject to drought.

The latest climate outlook, released by the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere, reported there was a 99 per cent chance El Nino would continue over the next three months.

Climatologist Stu Powell said he expected El Nino to bring more wind and sunshine, less rain and the possibility of late season frosts.

Winegrowers needed to get used to dealing with more extreme weather events, he said.

Although El Nino was not caused by climate change, rising global temperatures meant extreme variations in weather were becoming more commonplace.

More wind and higher sunshine hours would result in dry conditions, making water more of a concern this season, Powell said.

Data from the Blenheim Meteorological Station, at the Marlborough Research Centre, showed that between September 1997 and April 1998 temperatures were consistently warmer and there was less rainfall.

Wine Marlborough board chairman Clive Jones said the dry conditions affected the flavour of the 1998 vintage, which did not have a good reputation with international critics.

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The flavours of the sauvignon blanc were burnt out, he said.

But with better irrigation and frost protection measures, Jones said winegrowers were in a better position to deal with the conditions.

"Every year you learn something and that accumulates so, ultimately, that puts you in a better position to deal with the next season.

"If those circumstances happened again we wouldn't necessarily have the same result."

Villa Maria viticulturist Stuart Dudley said El Nino was something winegrowers should prepare for but it was not worth worrying about.

"If it happens, we'll deal with it."

If there were warmer temperatures this year, Dudley said there could be an early harvest.

Higher temperatures could also result in earlier flavour development, producing wine with riper characteristics.

But Dudley said there were ways to mitigate dry, windier conditions, including managing crop levels, choosing the right time to spray and using water efficiently. 

Wither Hills viticulture operations manager Sam Scarratt said being prepared was important.

Making sure irrigation, soil monitoring systems and frost protection were all operational meant the winery would be able to deal with El Nino, she said.

Leaving more leaves on the vines, in order to provide shade for the grapes, was also something she had considered. 

But, with the possibility of water restrictions, that had to be balanced against having a manageable canopy size.

Marlborough winegrowers were aware of El Nino but Scarratt did not think the industry was changing the way it dealt with extreme weather patterns in general.

 - The Marlborough Express


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