At the beginning of the grape harvest each year, I phone a selection of winemakers nationwide for a “work-in-progress” report. Their hopes could still be dashed by rain, hail or frost, but barring those “weather events”, as they euphemistically call them, 2021 is shaping up to be a pretty good vintage.
We’ve had a surfeit of riches from the past two vintages. Both 2019 and 2020 were stellar years in most regions, and particularly in the North Island. Covid has boosted export sales of sauvignon blanc to the point where the tanks are on empty. Talk of shortages this year has already encouraged British supermarket buyers to increase their orders for wine that has yet to be picked, and sales of bulk wine are drying up.
Kumeū and Hawke’s Bay
“It’s bloody early – we’ve just about finished picking,” exclaimed Michael Brajkovich MW, winemaker at Kumeu River. “The harvest started two and a half to three weeks earlier than usual. We’ve had three really good years in a row – although 2021 is not quite at the outstanding level of 2019 and 2020.”
An early frost means quantity is down, at least at Kumeu River. A shortage of pickers has caused problems, especially in Hawke’s Bay, where viticulturists are competing with orchardists for labour.
Harvest was well under way at Millton Vineyards & Winery when I spoke to owner/winemaker James Millton. “I thought it was going to be two weeks early but it was only four to five days early. It is an exceptionally good year. Grape pickers are in high demand but we’ve got a great crew. We had 60mls of rain two and a half weeks ago but it had been dry for so long the ground just sucked it up.”
I asked what was the star of the season and got a quick response. “Chardonnay. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Larry McKenna, founder of Escarpment, expected to start picking the day after I called him. “It’s looking good. We’ve had a perfect summer, with dry weather in the 20-30C range and warmer-than-usual nights. It is a fairly light crop, certainly down on last year, but the grapes are clean and I expect our pinot noir will have plenty of colour this year.”
John Forrest, owner of Forrest Wines, was about half-way through the grape harvest when I called on March 8. For the first time ever, he started picking in February. Harvests have been getting progressively early, which could be the effect of climate change. Crops are down by as much as 30%, although overall Forrest expects the harvest to be on the smaller side of normal.
The grape price for sauvignon blanc is moving up in response to news of a light crop.
Forrest is bullish about grape quality. “I haven’t found a single rotten berry, which is great. From a viticultural viewpoint it is a great year.” Forrest’s star of the vintage so far is the Spanish white grape albariño, which cropped well and tastes great.
Neudorf Vineyards general manager/winemaker Todd Stevens expected to begin harvesting early in the week after I spoke to him. Poor weather during flowering has meant a smaller-than-usual vintage. Chardonnay is a bit lighter than pinot noir although the quality of both is looking good. This vintage probably won’t be as good as the excellent ones in 2019 and 2020 but it won’t be far off those unless something goes badly wrong between now and the end of harvest.
Dom Maxwell, winemaker at Greystone Wines in Waipara, planned to start picking “later in the week” when I called. That is about two weeks earlier than usual.
A frost in October meant a smaller-than-usual crop. “Losses vary from vineyard to vineyard. Some are as much as 50% down while others have a totally normal crop. Thankfully, our best hillside blocks were spared, which means our top wines will be unaffected.”
Maxwell says the flavours taste great and he expects to produce concentrated wines.
Valli Wines produces wine from four sub-regions. Winemaker Jen Parr expects to start picking grapes just before Easter, which is about normal. Crops were down last year but apart from slightly low yields in Gibbston, she expects good crops generally in 2021. Central Otago has had some rain but Parr believes it was welcomed by most wine producers in the region. “If nature co-operates, it will be an easier vintage than last year.”
Bob’s Top Picks
Fromm 2019 Clayvin Pinot Noir, Marlborough, $65
Deep-scented pinot noir with floral/violet, plum, dark cherry, spice and grape stems. A tantalising core of fruit sweetness is perfectly balanced by fine, ripe tannins. Restrained power and an appealing texture.
Astrolabe 2020 Southern Valleys Sec Chenin Blanc, Marlborough, $27
Crisp, refreshing chenin blanc with classic green apple/tree fruits, citrus/lime and lemon blossom. Youthful sweet/sour tension adds appeal. As good as it is now, this wine promises to mellow and develop greater complexity with bottle age.
Valli 2019 Bendigo Pinot Noir, Central Otago, $69
A good example of Bendigo pinot noir with typically ripe plum, dark berry and spice flavours. It manages to be concentrated and fruit-forward without being a fruit-bomb style thanks, perhaps in part, to a structure of ripe, peppery tannins. Should develop well with bottle age.
Read more from Bob at therealreview.com