Winemakers toasting season

TESTING: Richmond Plains' owner, Lars Jensen, samples a Richmond Plains pinot noir wine from a barrel.
TESTING: Richmond Plains' owner, Lars Jensen, samples a Richmond Plains pinot noir wine from a barrel.

Nelson wineries are set to release some top wines, despite rain during the grape harvest taking the gloss off a good growing season.

The summer drought was welcomed by growers, because it reduced their vineyard costs and produced riper grapes with a more intense flavour.

However, heavy rain during the harvest in April compromised some crops, leaving winemakers plenty to do to produce high-quality wine.

In general, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir did better than pinot gris, which proved more susceptible to splitting and botrytis.

In a New Zealand Winegrowers survey, it was estimated that the Nelson harvest had bounced back from last year's low crop, rising 27 per cent to 7777 tonnes, and was just shy of the 2011 record.

The recovery was driven largely by strong rises in pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay tonnages, and more modest growth in sauvignon blanc.

But most large wineries approached by the Nelson Mail questioned the accuracy of the figures, saying they had recorded much lower increases.

Ben Bolitho, general manager of Waimea Estates, one of the region's biggest producers, said it was down 10 per cent on last year. This was largely because of lower sauvignon blanc yields.

Other growers he had talked to, including Seifried Estate, had also reported a lower-than-expected harvest.

Poor bud initiation in 2012 had led to low bunch numbers this year, even though flowering was excellent. However, the lighter crop had meant more concentrated flavours, while the hotter summer had produced grapes with lower acids and tannins, Mr Bolitho said.

"We are really pleased with the quality, particularly our sauvignon blanc."

Chardonnay and aromatic wines were also looking good, he said, with quality overall on a par with 2012.

Waimea had managed to get all its 1700 tonnes in before the rains came, in what was the most compressed vintage it had ever achieved. The harvesting was completed in 22 days, when normally it took at least a month.

"It was pretty intense. There were some eyes hanging out on stalks by the end."

While the smaller harvest didn't leave Waimea short of wine, it would curtail its plans to expand into some new markets, Mr Bolitho said.

With the global grape gut gone, demand picking up and the New Zealand dollar weakening in recent weeks, trading prospects had finally started to improve.

A reduction in cheap bulk-wine exports and a modest lift in prices would give wineries a much-needed boost in profitability.

Kahurangi Estate managing director Greg Day said it had harvested only slightly more grapes than 2012, which was about 10 per cent less than expected.

Rain just before the harvest had affected pinot gris in particular, although much of the chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and reds looked exceptional.

"Overall, I think 2012 was better for quality because this year has been a bit sporadic."

Mike Brown, chief executive of Kono Beverages and deputy chairman of the Nelson Winegrowers Association, said winemakers who knew how to handle the difficulties during harvest would still produce some very nice wine.

"Our sauvignon blanc looks much better than last year and it had to live through the rain."

It was in a softer, more approachable style than last year.

Mr Brown said he too was surprised by the survey results, because there was little evidence of increased plantings in the region.

In addition, his company's grape take was about 10 per cent lower than predicted. This was because of the disruption caused by the rain, which meant more selective harvesting was required.

Until then, it had been an excellent season, with the hot and dry weather reducing spraying and thinning work.

This year's larger vintage was welcome, because stock levels had become tight after 2012 and more wine was needed to satisfy the growing markets in Asia, Northern Europe and North America, he said.

"What is good is that the bulk-wine markets in the UK and Australia have started to dissipate and people are concentrating on getting packaged wine into more profitable channels."

However, profitability would take time to recover, as wineries were being squeezed by higher grape prices, which had risen about $200 to $300 a tonne, Mr Brown said.

Export customers had been slow to accept the need for higher prices, but with the big retailers unable to source so much bulk wine, they were now getting the message that prices had to rise.

Domestically, people should expect to pay more for New Zealand wine, because most of the cheap stuff from wineries in trouble had gone, he said. '

Local wine production was likely to remain in short supply during the next three to four years, until new plantings came onstream, which would allow wineries and growers to recover.

"There should be money in it for everyone," Mr Brown said.

However, Lars Jensen, owner of Richmond Plains, said profits for many smaller wineries remained elusive.

"That is something we are trying to work on by finding better customers, putting up prices and pursuing markets where the exchange rates are more competitive with the kiwi."

It was often better to sell less at a higher price, than chase volume, he said.

There were signs of growth in some markets. Wine quality was good and he was feeling more confident after yields had bounced back after falling about 40 per cent last year.

"2012 was either bad or ugly, so everybody is happy here to get some good volumes, so we can restock customers who are hanging out for new releases," he said.


Nelson's 2013 grape crop of 7777 tonnes was 27 per cent higher than the 6129 tonnes picked in 2012 and almost matches the record 7854 tonnes set in 2011.

It mirrored the national crop, which increased 28 per cent to 345,000 tonnes this year.

Nelson's share of the national crop was unchanged at 2.3 per cent. Marlborough dominated with almost 75 per cent, followed by Hawke's Bay, Gisborne and Central Otago.

Just over half the grapes grown in Nelson were sauvignon blanc, with production rising 10 per cent this year to 4016 tonnes.

Pinot noir (1364 tonnes, up 64 per cent), pinot gris (1134 tonnes, up 41 per cent), chardonnay (607 tonnes, up 44 per cent) and riesling (289 tonnes, up 32 per cent) were the next most popular varieties.

The biggest increases were shown by merlot (67 tonnes, up 249 per cent) and gewurztraminer (153 tonnes, 142 per cent). Both varieties bounced back after being hard hit by poor flowering in 2012.

Source: NZ Winegrowers survey

The Nelson Mail