2017 Vintage Wine Report Overview

‘“Challenging” is the word you’ll hear from everyone,’ a wine company executive told me shortly after the 2017 vintage. ‘What was the problem?’ asked Pegasus Bay in its Spring 2017 newsletter. ‘Quite simply, rain, and too much of it.’

In Marlborough, where nearly 80 per cent of the country’s grapes were harvested, some fruit rotted on the vines, when the remnants of two cyclones dumped torrential rain in early April. However, top-end producers, who picked their grapes earlier, reported Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of ‘outstanding’ quality.

At 396,000 tonnes, 2017 was our third-largest vintage, trailing only the record 2014 and 2016 harvests. Hawke’s Bay, the second-largest wine region, produced 9 per cent of the crop, followed by Gisborne with 4 per cent. Central Otago produced about 2 per cent of the country’s wine, as did Nelson and Canterbury.

Around the country, a generally warm spring was followed by a cool, dry start to the summer. February, however, was markedly wetter than usual in Marlborough, Gisborne and – especially – Hawke’s Bay. In early autumn, north-westerly winds dumped record high rainfall in the upper North Island, while south-easterly airflows over the South Island brought cool, wet conditions to east coast regions. April – the core harvest month – experienced ‘more north-easterly wind flow than normal,’ reported NIWA, ‘bringing with it moist tropical air masses and record-high rainfall for parts of the North Island. . . . This pattern also led to a very wet month for the northern and eastern South Island.’

Most of the regions’ winegrowers had to battle exceptionally wet weather before the harvest, which slowed ripening and encouraged the spread of botrytis rot. Quality-focused growers, who crop their vines lightly, ripened their grapes relatively early, but for those aiming for a bumper crop, there was no ‘get out of jail’ card. Some grape-growers had their unripe fruit rejected by the wineries; others picked nothing at all.

In Auckland, red-wine varieties ‘really bore the brunt of the challenging weather,’ says the Northern Winegrowers Association, and were ‘somewhat diluted’. The Gisborne Herald reported crop losses due to the adverse autumn weather, but after very selective picking, producers were still bullish about wine quality.

In Hawke’s Bay, a favourably warm, dry summer was followed by a miserable autumn. A top producer reported ‘pretty good’ Chardonnay and Merlot, but Syrah was ‘a struggle’. Grape-grower Xan Harding predicted some top wines would emerge, ‘but not as many as in 2013 to 2016’.

In Marlborough, ‘it was a rough ride,’ reported Winepress, the local industry magazine, ‘that resulted in lower brix [natural grape sugar levels], disease pressure, and reduced harvest expectations for many.’ Spy Valley reported ‘quite solid’ Sauvignon Blanc and ‘lovely’ Pinot Gris. Nautilus expects its Sauvignon Blancs to be ‘slightly more restrained than some years, but delightful to drink and unmistakably Marlborough’.

The most upbeat reports flowed from Central Otago, where after a very cool, windy summer, but favourable autumn, most winegrowers reported harvesting small crops of disease-free, ripely flavoured Pinot Noir.