Viticulturist Richard Smart explains the growing threat to Marlborough’s wine industry: trunk disease.
Overall it looks as though yields will be down on last year, given frost events in spring, and cooler conditions during flowering. Powdery Mildew has been the biggest issue facing most regions, particularly with the hot conditions experienced in January and February. Only time will tell, but the following is a preview, of what the regions are expecting.
Mud Brick Vineyards winemaker Patrick Newton was effusive about vintage 2015, despite the threat of a cyclone hanging over him at the time of interviewing, in mid March. And despite the wet start to the season, which led to significant vegetative growth following budburst. “The weather became dry at fruit set, which was slightly down (by about 20%) on 2014 which was the winery’s largest crop to date,” Newton reported.
“The vintage was down due to less than optimal conditions at flowering and a bit of hail, which affected Chardonnay and also a little bit of the Syrah and one Merlot vineyard. It broke a few shoots but the vines returned to health with good canopies,” Newton says.
Cable Bay winemaker Chloe Parkinson also found that the windy spring has resulted in lower yields than originally anticipated but she said the quality of the fruit was more concentrated as a direct result of the reduced crop.
“The whites coming in so far (as at mid March) are looking great.
Compared to 2014, we are down in terms of yield but compared to 2013, we are quite similar. We are down overall by about 5%.”
The Cable Bay block that was most badly affected by spring wind was Pinot Gris. This was due to the windy aspect of the vineyard rather than the variety itself; “It was a vineyard at the top of the hill where the flowering did not happen very well and the bunches were all really small, but as a result of small bunches the quality is really good.”
The 2015 grape crop in the Gisborne region is looking “fantastic”, according to Gisborne Winegrowers’ Association president, Al Knight, even after the weather bomb known as Pam.
“It obviously wasn’t as bad as predicted and we don’t anticipate it will cause a significant impact on the vintage,” he said.
The week after the cyclone hit, growers and wine companies were assessing individual blocks and varieties, and Knight said they were lucky there was no humidity or risk of botrytis. .
Within four days he was harvesting Chardonnay and described the fruit as “fantastic. It is mind boggling how little damage Pam has caused.”
A very cool spring led to slower shoot development in Gisborne, which meant that heading into flowering, growers didn’t have as strong a canopy as they wanted. Flowering in November was short and sharp due to ideal temperatures resulting in a good degree of heat. Post-flowering, the canopy started to take off, the leaf layers becoming reasonably dense. The powdery mildew pressure through this period and into January was considered high so frequent spray applications were important to ensure protection.
“Gisborne experienced indifferent weather during pre-bunch closure in late December-early January with humidity raising the potential risk of botrytis infection.”
Mid-February, cropping levels were looking very balanced and about average in tonnage per hectare. At that stage, the season was about 10-12 days behind last year like other crops around the district.
Brix levels jumped in the last couple of weeks of February with some favourable ripening conditions.
In the second week of March, harvesting of some of the early MC (Méthode Champenoise) blocks got under way and early indications from growers showed that cropping levels were coming in according to estimates, with the fruit in excellent condition.
“Taking all factors into account, the crop is looking fantastic,” Knight said.
Hawke’s Bay winegrowers let out a collective sigh of relief after Cyclone Pam came and went with what appears to have been relatively little impact on the region’s grapes.
With ample warning about the advancing cyclone, big companies in particular mobilised to bring in early varieties ready for harvesting, ahead of the storm.
The heaviest rain was concentrated into a few days. Mal McLennan of Maimai Creek says his company’s Bridge Pa vineyard recorded 25mm on the night of Thursday, 12 March, and 53mm over the following weekend.
However the following days brought light south-westerly breezes – ideal conditions for drying out soggy vineyards and minimising the potential for botrytis infection.
In the short term, McLennan says the rain will have diluted flavours and pushed out Hawke’s Bay’s harvest by 7-10 days. However, he remained optimistic about the quality of the vintage.
“It was a short sharp event and not as bad as predicted,” McLennan concludes. And as far as such events go, he says, “it came at a good time for us, early in the harvest.”
With that out of the way, winegrowers in the region were cautiously excited about the possibility of pulling off a hat trick in what could be a third successive top quality vintage.
“That would be extraordinary,” says John van der Linden, who manages Villa Maria’s vineyards in Hawke’s Bay.
While experiencing no major frost events, spring’s cool conditions saw the season off to a slower than average start.
Mission Estate viticulturist Steve Wheeler says flowering was a mixed bag. But while the company’s Sauvignon Blanc was down, most varieties were looking pretty good as harvesting drew near.
By the time spring officially tipped into summer, most vineyards were a good two weeks behind. Early December produced a run of rainy days but temperatures picked up as the month progressed. January and February turned up the heat and produced a good number of 30 plus degree days. That got the season back on track for most although a few said they were still running a week to 10 days late.
Van der Linden says veraison was reasonably even in all varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the region’s latest varieties, and that boded well for the vintage.
Growers did face a few challenges with powdery mildew in some blocks. Because the newer type of powdery mildew is more aggressive, growers are having to be alert to attacks and ready with their spraying interventions. However the incidence in Hawke’s Bay was down on last year.
Drought came close and botrytis was a distant memory for winemakers in the Wairarapa this year.
At the time of writing, Palliser Estate winemaker Allan Johnston had just picked the bubbly base of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and said that cropping levels were down a little.
“Overall, we are a bit below average yields this year because of our cooler than usual temperatures over the flowering period, so we got smaller bunches than we did in 2014. The weather changed in December but generally we were pretty cool during the flowering period.”
Pinot Noir appeared to have been most affected by this smaller bunch weight but the windier than usual spring had also impacted other varieties.
The harvest was about a week earlier than originally anticipated.
“In general, we have had a warm and moderate summer, which has been very favourable for advancing the maturity between flowering and harvest, which we are seeing to some degree with some lower acids in mid March than we would normally see at this stage.”
Poppy Hammond of Poppies Martinborough likens 2015 vintage to the 2001 vintage; her first in the Wairarapa.
“This year the summer has been long, dry and with relatively stronger than usual winds during spring. It has also been a very stretched out and settled year with very dry conditions. It is what we think of as a classic Martinborough vintage.”
The crop levels are down as a result of the dry spring, she says. “We are down about 30% on last year but I love seeing small bunches and at the start of harvest, the leaves were beginning to yellow off, which, to me, is an indication of vines that are in very good balance just at the right time. It looks like a clear indication that the vines have done what they need to do.”
Right across the Nelson region, early vintage conditions have resulted in a crop significantly lower than last year, but only slightly down on the long term average, and the quality is described as very good.
The main cause of the lower crop was a cold snap during flowering in late November and early December when some vineyards suffered significant frost damage. One vineyard will have no crop this year as a result of spring frosts while others have had small patches of vineyards affected. The biggest issue facing growers is the impact the cold had on flowering Sauvignon Blanc vineyards with most reporting an expected shortage in this variety.
On the Waimea Plains Gary Neale from Brightwater Vineyards says they have a naturally lighter crop so only needed minimal fruit thinning. Rain in early March didn’t have a huge impact as significant rain events were followed by fresh breezes and warm days drying everything out nicely. Neale says the rain in fact helped keep the canopy in good nick after a very dry summer.
Another minor crop issue this year is the appearance of hen and chicken in bunches across a range of varieties not normally affected, such as, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. The effect this will have on finished wines is unknown although with smaller berries scattered throughout bunches it may result in lower than expected juice quantities. The higher ratio of skin to juice may also impact on skin phenolics for those varieties that require soaking on skins before pressing.
In the Moutere Hills area Tim Finn from Neudorf Vineyards says their crop is also slightly lighter than average but at a level that isn’t really of concern.
Chairman of Wine Nelson and viticulturist for Aoronui Wines, Jonny Hiscox, says he has had reports from around the region of record low crop levels, frost damage and in some areas low levels of powdery mildew. He says “these issues are nothing unusual as winegrowers know they have to work with different weather conditions every year. They are used to autumn rains and just get on with making the very best wine they can from the fruit harvested each year.”
Hiscox also says the overall quality of the 2015 vintage in the Nelson region is looking very good as, like the rest of the country, they have experienced an outstanding summer that delivered lots of sunshine and heat.
The Marlborough growing season has had a little bit of everything this year. Frosts (15 in all over the spring period), cool temperatures during the early part of flowering, an abundance of hot days from January on and drought conditions that have impacted on a number of blocks as water rights were turned off. As a result, yields are well below the highs of last season, although the region is celebrating a fantastic ripening period.
The frost events, while they kept everyone on their toes, did not impact heavily. There were touches of damage spread across the district, but the general opinion is they didn’t impact on yields to any major degree.
However a December 1 event, that saw temperatures plummet did impact on those areas that were flowering at the time.
“The blocks that flowered later or even earlier than that, did well – however the middle flowering blocks were impacted,” said Stuart Dudley, Villa Maria’s Marlborough Viticulturist.
The cool start to the month, followed on for another two weeks, which was the time a large number of Sauvignon Blanc blocks were flowering, according to viticulture consultant, Dominic Pecchenino.
“We are finding the Sauvignon Blanc yields are lower than the early estimates and in our situation we are seeing a bit of hen and chicken in the berries, because of that cool weather at bloom and set.”
By the end of December, the region hit its straps in terms of fine hot conditions – and they have continued right through into March. However those dry conditions have created some issues, with Marlborough declared a drought zone in early February. (The rainfall between July 2014 and February 2015 was the lowest in 86 years.)
Inevitably water rights were switched off, with the Southern Valleys being the worst hit. While rainfall in early March eased that irrigation pressure, the impact of the previous months is still being felt.
Nautilus winemaker and winery manager Clive Jones says the drought added to the pressures during the growing season. The more than average number of days when the temperature reached over 25 degrees also saw a number of powdery mildew outbreaks.
“It has been a growing season with challenges,” he said. “The powdery mildew issue and the drought stress has meant we have had to keep on top of things. But the fruit is exceptionally clean so far and we have had no botrytis pressure.”
He agreed that the yields are not only well below last years but are coming in up to 10 percent below initial estimates.
“The Sauvignon Blanc is a lot lower than last year and as we predicted they are also under our targets. The Pinot Noir we have picked is also coming in at 10 percent under what we had expected.”
Describing it as more of an average Marlborough harvest, Jones said it began slightly earlier than normal and he was expecting it to be quite a compact vintage, finishing earlier than normal.
An October frost that affected up to 80 percent of vineyard blocks in Waipara, means the 2015 vintage is going to be a lot smaller than hoped, probably by 30 percent. Which is gutting according to winemakers, because the fruit that is on the vines is superb.
Simon McGeorge, Waipara Hills winemaker says the October frost wasn’t the only damaging event for the region.
“Those that weren’t hit by the frost, got hit by high winds which caused damage to the short shoots. So it was a rough start to the season.”
He says there are some blocks that were so badly hit, they will produce nothing this year.
“Sauvignon Blanc was very hard hit. Our Chardonnay was as well, but it has bounced back. And the Pinot was hit hard as well. The frost was a negative one and a half, to negative two degree air flow, so it was next to impossible to fight.”
He said the conditions set the region back around a month, but the hot, dry summer helped them catch up.
Nicholas Naish from Black Estate said the frosts were some of the worst to hit the region, and many growers had never seen it that cold before.
“But it was quite early on and people have had a long time to adapt their viticulture to that. It did have an effect, but what also had an effect was the dry winter. Then we had a windy dry spring which was quite cool up until mid December, so that really limited plant growth up to that point. So there were all sorts of challenges.”
But like Marlborough, the weather turned for the better in mid December.
“We have had some beautiful weather since then,” Naish said. “The period of late flowering and fruit set and then from flowering to veraison has been amazing. We have been able to get really good ripening.”
He added that here has been no disease pressure, the fruit is clean and people are excited.
“We are not counting our chickens until they are hatched,” he admitted. “A lot of people learned a lot from the 2014 vintage. But the fruit is stunningly clean and as it has begun to get ripe the amazing flavours are coming through. We are excited about the Pinots, they are going to be pretty amazing. And I’m really excited about the Riesling, and some of the Chardonnay is looking pretty good as well.”
“We have some phenomenal fruit,” said McGeorge. “We just don’t have enough.”
It was a cool start to the season for Central with low temperatures setting things back a bit in the October to December period. But right on cue, the mercury began to rise in December, and January recorded warm temperatures, which has seen smaller and more open bunches – just what the winemaker’s ordered.
Lowburn Ferry Wine’s owner, Roger Gibson says his vineyard dodged a bullet with a December frost that occurred.
“Because just as flowering started a very cold southerly hit and if flowering had been in full swing; we could have been in for a terrible fruit set. Fortunately the plants held off flowering until a break in the cool weather and then went very quickly into flowering with the hot weather and we got a very good fruit set.”
Peregrine Wines viticulturist Nick Paulin says the cold November which included a few frosts didn’t create any damage to their vines, and weather through flowering and fruit set was hot and dry – perfect conditions.
Even a recent cold snap in February when snow descended to autumnal levels and frost machines were in full flight, had little impact on Gibson’s or Peregrine’s vines.
“If it had happened in late March with a frost it could be a problem and that is our next scary thing that we might miss out on our last couple of weeks of ripeness,” Gibson says.
“For us harvest will still be pretty typical, around mid April, whereas last year we were probably 10 days to two weeks earlier.
“I would say we are going for a moderate quantity type year with very good quality. Actually the decision that most of us will be going through at the moment is what to drop, but I don’t think we will be thinning to reduce the quantity really it will just be about evening up and tidying up, most vineyards here will trim to quality.”
Paulin agrees saying the yields are looking good, an average size crop; “not a massive and not a small crop. Only a few blocks have needed adjustments, most are on target, with just a quick green thin after veraison.”