2016 Vintage Wine Report Overview

The shelves are packed with infant wine. Vintage 2016 yielded a huge crop – 34 per cent bigger than 2015.

The season took most winegrowers by surprise. Meteorologists forecast a drought-stricken summer, similar to 1997–1998, when the El Niño weather phenomenon brought months of low rainfall and constant, strong south-westerly winds, turning much of the land into a tinderbox. Hawke’s Bay’s 1998 red wines were deliciously dark and bold.

Instead, this summer brought a flow of warm, humid tropical air masses from the north-east. Changeable, chaotic weather in December was followed by a wet January and a warm, sunny, moist February. The warm air flows from the tropics persisted into autumn, bringing abundant rainfall to many regions in late March.

The first four months of 2016 were all warmer than usual, according to NIWA, and January–April 2016 was the equal second-warmest January–April on record (equalled by 1998 and exceeded only by 1938). The good news is that April – the key harvest period – enjoyed settled weather, ‘with warm temperatures, low rainfall and high sunshine hours characterising the month for many parts of the country’.

In Marlborough – which has two-thirds of the country’s total vineyard area – spring and early summer were sunny and dry. Craggy Range noted that ‘warm rain events in January during the berry expansion period saw sudden berry swell, resulting in the largest berry weights on record for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at harvest time’.

During February, the weather in Marlborough proved warm, very sunny and dry. Thousands of tonnes of grapes were dropped from the vines, as viticulturists – keen to avoid a repeat of the glut-induced discounting that followed previous huge harvests – grappled with heavy crop loads.

At Allan Scott, the harvest was double the size of 2015, but a warm, sunny March, followed by a very sunny, dry and warm April, helped to ripen the region’s heavy bunches. Te Whare Ra predicted Marlborough’s top 2016 wines ‘will be equal to some of the best we’ve ever had’.

In Hawke’s Bay, the second-largest region (with 13 per cent of the national vineyard), a cool, wet spring was followed by a hot, dry summer. ‘It was like changing jerseys at halftime,’ says Barry Riwai, winemaker at Alpha Domus.

In March, Alpha Domus dropped ‘a lot on the ground – a third to a half’. Sacred Hill picked ‘great’ Chardonnay, but intense humidity in late March adversely affected thinner-skinned red varieties, especially Merlot.

Winegrowers in Otago (the third-largest region, with 5 per cent of plantings) enthused about a notably dry season, which yielded small, flavour-packed berries. Grasshopper Rock, at Alexandra, reported quality ‘up with the very best vintages’.

The bumper 2016 harvest underlined the extent to which the New Zealand wine industry still depends heavily on a single variety. Sauvignon Blanc accounted for over 72 per cent of the vintage – dwarfing Pinot Noir (8.5 per cent), Chardonnay (6.9 per cent) and Pinot Gris (5.9 per cent).

Marlborough has a glowing international reputation for Sauvignon Blanc, but the classic grape also dominated the crop this year in several regions normally associated with other varieties – Hawke’s Bay (where the Sauvignon Blanc crop was well ahead of Merlot and Chardonnay); Wairarapa (where Sauvignon Blanc outstripped Pinot Noir); Nelson (where Sauvignon Blanc was over half the total harvest); and Canterbury (where the tonnage of Sauvignon Blanc was almost double that of Riesling or Pinot Noir).