Despite late rain the 2017 vintage is stacking up

By Roger Moroney

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Hawke's Bay Winemakers Association chairman Michael Henley.  Photo/File
Hawke's Bay Winemakers Association chairman Michael Henley. Photo/File

In the winemaking world every dark barrel can have a silver lining - after the weather decides to step into the blend.

After the 2013 and 2014 vintage were acclaimed as arguably the best ever seen, and 2015 and 2016 came close to following suit, the 2017 vintage which had been coming along beautifully due to blisteringly hot and dry conditions took a late, damp, nudge.

After staying bottled for a good time the autumn rains of 2017 were uncorked at the worst possible time.

A week into March and belts of constant rain began crossing the region, causing anxious looks on the faces of winemakers and viticulturists.

During the last weekend of the month 21.4mm fell across greater Napier and 13mm around Hastings.

It disturbed harvesting and created lower than anticipated varietal volumes for some growers.

Hawke's Bay Winegrowers Association chairman Michael Henley said the 2016 harvest saw 42,000 tonnes of grapes picked while the 2017 dropped to 33,000.

"But that could quite possibly be a good thing.

"We had to make the right calls at the time to make the quality - we don't chase quantity in Hawke's Bay - it is all about chasing quality."

And in terms of the chardonnay of 2017 that was well on the cards, because that variety had been largely picked before the rains hit.

And the later cabernet sauvignon blends came though pretty well - their thicker skins and resilience to rain, along with mainly good drainage across the region and focused harvesting plans, achieved good quality.

Mr Henley said the 2017 is much stronger than the challenging vintages of 2011 and 2012 and he has no doubts the region's wineries will be delivering some "outstanding" fine wines to rival the golden vintages of 2013 to 2016.

"It is still a wait and see thing because they are still youthful and in the barrels, but there will be some fine wines come out of this vintage."

Effectively, it was a case of being selective about what was brought in.

Preparation and having plans for potential rain issues were part of the whole winemaking landscape.

Rain during harvesting times was not unusual for the Bay.

"Our winemakers and growers are prepared for this and make decisions based around years of experience," Mr Henley said.

Had it happened 20 or so years ago the results would not have been so good.

"But as the Hawke's Bay industry matures we are able to cope better with whatever the conditions at the time of harvest."

His colleagues agreed.

As the rains of March fell leading winemaker Rod McDonald was attending a wine tasting event in Auckland and was quizzed on how the wet weather would affect the grape harvest, and what shape the fruit was likely to be in.

He pointed out the weather was the only unpredictable facet of grape growing, and despite Hawke's Bay effectively dry reputation all those in the industry had a wet weather plan and were prepared for that eventuality.

It was not ideal but it could be worked around.

And what had pretty well "saved our bacon" were the drought conditions of December to mid-February which saw the development of the grapes go well and provide a level of some protection when the rains did arrive.

As Mission Estate winemaker Paul Mooney put it - "we have worked around it".

In some cases it was a case of location, location, location, and some growers were very satisfied with what 2017 delivered while others shook their heads - although the common response was given the late vintage conditions which descended they were generally happy with what they had in the tanks.

With a smile Mr Henley said the superb seasons of 2013 and 2014 had made it easy for winemakers to turn out world-class fine wines.

"It's good to have a challenge ... we want them to earn their money," he laughed.

"And this is a vintage where they have had to be very selective and make the tough calls."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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