Marlborough harvest kicks off, grape prices look 'firm'
The first grapes have come off the vines in Marlborough, heralding the beginning of eight frantic weeks for vineyard workers, wine companies and transport firms.
Nautilus Estate led the charge with workers converging on its Opawa Vineyard block on Wednesday morning to take six tonnes of pinot noir grapes for sparkling wine.
It was the 28th vintage for viticulturist Mike Collins, but he said it was still exciting to see a year of work come to fruition as the grapes were transferred to the winery.
"It's a mixture of excitement and trepidation - we've done a year's worth of work to get to this stage, so we just want to get over the line now," he said.
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About 40 workers from Alapa Viticultural Services spent two hours harvesting the grapes, packing them into 13-kilogram containers to be taken to a cool store overnight.
The pinot noir grapes for sparkling were picked around 18 or 19 Brix, a measure of ripeness determined by the level of sugar in the fruit.
Collins said the harvest took place almost exactly the same time as last year, but there was still a waiting period until sauvignon blanc grapes ripened to about 21.5 Brix.
This would happen in late March, which was when the harvest would kick off in earnest, as thousands of tonnes of grapes were taken from the vineyards to the wineries.
Last year, 323,290 tonnes of grapes were harvested in Marlborough, one of the largest on record. Viticulturists predicted a lower yield this year, around the long-term average.
There had been rumours in the industry that some wine companies were paying higher grape prices, as compensation to growers for taking less fruit because of reduced capacity.
Tanks amounting to 20 per cent of total storage capacity were damaged in November's earthquake, however companies had been almost uniform in their response that this had been restored.
New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan said he heard wine companies affected by the earthquake had restored their capacity.
"Everything I've heard is the grape intake will be unaffected by the earthquake, but that's not to say there aren't people out there in that situation," he said.
Caythorpe Family Estate owner Simon Bishell said he was not aware of higher prices being paid out for earthquake damage, saying overall prices looked similar to last year.
"At this stage prices are firm for growers, and we're looking at not too much change from what we saw last year, probably across all varieties," he said.
Sauvignon blanc was going for about $1800 a tonne last year, which Bishell described as the most profitable for growers since 2008, when companies were paying around $2500.
"It's put growers in a solid position, it's not excess or opulence, but it's certainly a lot better than what it was, we've seen some good upwards pressure over the last four or five years," he said.
However, Bishell said growers would have faced higher costs this season because of challenging weather conditions, resulting in increased labour needs and disease control.
Plant and Food scientist Rob Agnew said the earliest of the eight sauvignon blanc vineyards the organisation monitored, in central Rapaura, was expected to reach 21.5 Brix on March 26.
This was two days earlier than last year, and the exact average from the 13 years Plant and Food had been monitoring the sites.
- The Marlborough Express