Marlborough grape harvest triggers memories of 'diabolical' 1995 event

Rain is making life difficult for vineyard workers trying to get grapes off the vines and into wineries.
DEREK FLYNN/FAIRFAX NZ

Rain is making life difficult for vineyard workers trying to get grapes off the vines and into wineries.

It rained and it rained, and grapes rotted on the vines.

The 1995 harvest, in the words of one seasoned grower, was diabolical, potentially the worst Marlborough had ever seen.

Now 22 years later, facing another wet harvest and the spread of the fungal disease botrytis, memories of that nightmare vintage have resurfaced.

Wine industry insiders, none of whom were prepared to speak publicly, have said this harvest is the worst since 1995. However, wine companies are putting on a brave face.

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Those spoken to said, despite the weather, harvest was going well, the fruit was looking clean and there were good flavours. Figures showed 2017 was looking a lot better than 1995.

Data from the Blenheim meteorological station showed between January and April 1995 there was 416 millimetres of rain, well above the long-term average of 176.8mm.

So far this year, to the end of March, just 136mm had fallen, although the April figures were not in yet.

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The wettest month was February, with about 60mm. However, January rainfall was less than last year - considered a dream season - and it was almost identical in March with about 47mm.

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The 1995 deluge was heavily reported at the time in the Express. One front page story from April quoted a grape grower involved in the industry since 1980.

"It's been diabolical. Potentially this is the worst season we have ever had," he said.

Wine companies played down that assessment in a follow-up article, but reports showed botrytis was rife, and many growers had their crop turned away.

Disease-riddled grapes had already been turned away this year, but industry heads downplayed the effects of the rain, saying it would not have a major impact.

But the stakes were much higher this time around. In 1995, 24,609 tonnes of grapes were taken for wine in Marlborough, a pittance of the 323,290 tonnes harvested in the region last year.

Plant and Food scientist Dr Mike Trought said it was dangerous to make predictions before all the grapes were in, but the amount of rain had made for a trying harvest so far.

"On a scale of 0 to 100, where '95 is 100, this year is definitely closer to that than zero, but the proof will come out when the wine is safely in the tanks," he said.

Trought was a senior lecturer of viticulture at Lincoln University in 1995. He took a group of students to Marlborough for a field trip, but most people were too frantic to talk.

"I vividly remember taking a group of students to a winery in the Awatere Valley and watching the rain just cascade off the roof - we couldn't get out it was so bad," he said.

Trought said the wine industry today was better prepared to deal with a wet harvest. Back in 1995, harvesters were 2WD, so it was difficult to get around in wet, muddy conditions.

There were also few wineries based in Marlborough. Most companies had their processing plants in the North Island, so there was the logistical challenge of shipping grapes north.

"We didn't have the same level of weather forecasting and infrastructure here so the problems of the '95 vintage were compounded by a lack of information," Trought said.

"Obviously the industry has got a bit of a challenge this year, I think we can say it's a trying vintage, but let's wait to see where we are at the end before drawing too many conclusions."

Wine Marlborough chairman Rhyan Wardman said on Tuesday the harvest last year, where barely any rain fell, was unusual, and that most seasons had weather challenges.

"It's the reality of cool climate viticulture, nobody is panicking, no-one is fearful, this is normal for us - it was last year that was a luxury," he said.

 - The Marlborough Express

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