2018 Vintage Wine Report Overview

After the country’s hottest-ever summer, opinions were divided on the prospects for fine wine from 2018. New Zealand Winegrowers, the industry body, highlighted the ‘very early start to harvesting’, the ‘benefits of the warm summer’ and ‘good ripeness levels’. But Grant Taylor, a vastly experienced Otago winemaker, predicted the ‘hot as hell’ ripening conditions around the country would produce ‘a lot of over-ripe, flat wines . . .’

New Zealand Winegrower magazine noted that the summer of 2017–2018 ‘won’t be forgotten in a hurry. Record temperatures, record rainfall (in some areas), three cyclonic events, and crops that defied initial predictions, in Marlborough at least, of being below the long-term average. . . . Words such as bizarre, unique, strange and crazy have all been mentioned by winemakers and growers. . . . But there are a lot of positives as well, with fruit flavours shining through at lower brix and lower acids being experienced in a number of regions due to a succession of warm night temperatures.’

At 419,000 tonnes, 2018 was New Zealand’s third-largest grape harvest, 6 per cent bigger than 2017, but smaller than 2016 (436,000 tonnes) and the record 2014 vintage (445,000 tonnes). Sauvignon Blanc dominated the crop (73.3 per cent), trailed by Pinot Noir (8.7 per cent), Chardonnay (6.5 per cent), Pinot Gris (5.6 per cent) and Merlot (2.6 per cent).

Spring started with a wet, warm September. October brought ‘settled, warm conditions over much of the country,’ according to NIWA, and was followed by a hot, dry November, which reduced soil levels significantly.

Over summer, warm northerly and north-easterly winds meant records set decades ago just melted away. After the second-warmest December on record, January was the country’s hottest month for at least a century. In February, two ex-tropical cyclones brought warm, very humid weather and high rainfall, causing flooding in wine regions in the upper and eastern South Island.

Autumn began with the sixth-warmest March on record, followed by average temperatures and destructive storms in April. As one producer told New Zealand Winegrower, he was ‘looking forward to looking at this harvest in the rear vision mirror’.

2018 Regional Vintage Report


 

Auckland (and Northland)


The two northernmost regions, Auckland (787 tonnes) and Northland (113 tonnes), together accounted for just 0.2 per cent of the national grape crop. In a small harvest (15 per cent lighter than 2017), Chardonnay was the major variety (32 per cent), well ahead of Pinot Gris (16 per cent), Merlot (12 per cent) and Syrah (11 per cent).

Spring started with a warm, wet September, followed by a cloudy, drier than usual October and a very dry November. The pattern of below-normal rainfall continued into summer, when some parts of the region recorded their driest December on record. Following an ‘unusually warm November and December’, Puriri Hills at Clevedon reported ‘beautiful flowering and fruit set’.

However, by the end of January, the region’s soil moisture levels were higher than normal, and February brought more than double the average rainfall (Warkworth, near Auckland city, reported its wettest-ever February). In autumn, a warm March with near normal rainfall was followed by a warm, wet April.

‘In February alone, we had over 200 mm of rain, which is more than we have ever had,’ reported Heron’s Flight, at Matakana, in early March. ‘But all is not lost. If we can get a few weeks of good and stable weather, we will be OK.’ Post-harvest, Heron’s Flight sounded fairly upbeat: ‘We picked grapes in very good condition (with the exception of bird and wasp pecks) and with a good level of ripeness. . . . At the moment, we have potentially some “reserve” quality vats fermenting away.’

James Rowan, of West Brook, makes wine for numerous Auckland producers. ‘We made some great Chardonnay and rosé, and Waiheke Island Syrah is the real champion this year.’

Puriri Hills reported that ‘this year’s summer has really been quite extraordinary. For us it has been hot and it has been wet.’ In autumn, ‘March and April remained somewhat wet. . . . Our fruit was less concentrated than we hoped. . . . Disappointing, given the early promise, but still some good wines will come out of it.’

 

Gisborne

‘Overall [it was] a solid vintage, without any peaks or troughs,’ reported Matawhero. At 13,000 tonnes (20 per cent less than 2017), Gisborne’s growers picked just 3.2 per cent of the national grape harvest. Chardonnay dominated (53 per cent), followed by Pinot Gris (22 per cent) and Sauvignon Blanc (14 per cent).

In spring, a warm, wet September was followed by a dry October. Paul Tietjen, one of the region’s most experienced growers, attributed the lightness of the harvest to ‘a cold snap and a bit of rain back in November at the start of flowering’.

In January, Gisborne was ‘somewhat sheltered from the moist northerly airflows and had near normal rainfall,’ said NIWA. James Millton reported ‘summer was warm and late December/early January it was quite hot, yet with cooling sea breezes. . . . After escaping two cyclones and most of the rain that drove down the centre of the country, we were well organised out east to start harvest with grapes not showing high sugar ripeness (potential alcohols by volume of 12 per cent) . . . but wonderful phenolic ripeness . . .’

Millton singled out Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat and Chenin Blanc as the highlights of the vintage. After an ‘incredibly warm’ summer, Matawhero noted ‘great physiological ripeness in the seeds’ at ‘lower than normal brix [grape sugar] levels’. Chardonnay with ‘great tropical notes’ and ‘deeply coloured reds with no green component’ were the standouts.

After a drier than usual April, Steve Voysey, one of Gisborne’s top winemakers, reported wines that are ‘fuller and weightier than usual, accentuated by lower acidities. I would expect rich, textural wines to result.’

 

Hawke’s Bay

At 41,061 tonnes, Hawke’s Bay’s grape harvest was 22 per cent up on 2017, accounting for 10.2 per cent of the national harvest. Sauvignon Blanc (29.2 per cent) and Merlot (24.5 per cent) were the two most commonly picked varieties, followed by Chardonnay (19.5 per cent) and Pinot Gris (10.3 per cent).

Spring brought a ‘good start to the season,’ according to New Zealand Winegrower. ‘By and large the spring and early summer weather was conducive to growth and reproduction.’ High levels of sunshine and warm night temperatures during summer pushed ripening along, although high levels of humidity brought problems with powdery mildew.

During summer, much of the wind was from the north-east, according to James Morrison, of WeatherStation, in Hawke’s Bay Wine. ‘The high humidity and high rainfall have provided some real challenges . . . highlighted by thunderstorms and heavy downpours causing flooding and damage at Eskdale.’

Autumn began with an unusually wet March, followed by a warmer, wetter April than usual, according to the NIWA station at Napier Aero. WeatherStation reported that rainfall totals ‘ranged wildly across Hawke’s Bay’.

On 27 March, Supernatural Wine Co reported it had ‘finished harvest last week. . . . Given all the rain we had, we got away OK.’ Others were more upbeat. Ash Ridge, in the Bridge Pa Triangle – which also noted highly localised weather – reported an ‘exceptional’ harvest of very early-ripening Chardonnay and Syrah.

Trinity Hill, in the Gimblett Gravels, was also enthusiastic. ‘We had a cracker,’ said winemaker Warren Gibson in mid-April. ‘It was the usual tough time mid to late March with high humidity affecting some vineyards in such a warm, early season. However, we have been able to hang on to almost all of our best vineyards and I can’t think of another season where we have so many beautiful Syrah and Cabernet batches.’

 

Wairarapa

At 4592 tonnes, Wairarapa winegrowers harvested 20 per cent more than in 2017, but it still accounted for just 1.1 per cent of the national grape crop. Sauvignon Blanc (44.1 per cent) and Pinot Noir (43.9 per cent) were by far the dominant varieties, trailed distantly by Pinot Gris (5.5 per cent) and Chardonnay (3.9 per cent).

In spring, the vines got off to a good start in calm growing conditions, according to Palliser Estate. ‘Good fruit set was achieved with balanced cropping levels.’ An abnormally dry November and warm December triggered early flowering, and a warm summer shortened the normal period from flowering to harvest by 10 days. On 30 January, Masterton recorded 35.4°C – its highest temperature since records began in 1906.

February and March, however, both proved much wetter than usual. This induced disease pressure, admits Palliser, ‘but with the grapes ripening early, we were able to pick while they remained in good condition’.

‘What a difficult year this one was,’ noted Brodie Estate, at Martinborough, with hot, dry weather before Christmas bringing ‘great flowering and fruit set’, followed by ‘wet, cool days leading to powdery mildew issues’. Brodie Estate finished its grape harvest in mid-March – its earliest completion on record.

Further north, ‘2018 was short, sharp and easy for us,’ reported Gladstone Vineyard. ‘We were very happy with the quality of the fruit.’

Palliser Estate declared quality was ‘very good across the board, with Pinot Noir the star in our minds. The 2018 Sauvignon Blanc sits nicely between the tropical 2016 and the herbaceous 2017 vintages. . . . The Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are both full and rich.’

 

Nelson

At 9120 tonnes (7 per cent more than in 2017), Nelson’s winegrowers processed 2.3 per cent of the national grape crop. Sauvignon Blanc dominated, accounting for 63.7 per cent of the regional harvest, followed by Pinot Gris (12.4 per cent), Pinot Noir (9.8 per cent) and Chardonnay (7.5 per cent).

Spring was ‘very dry,’ noted Appleby Vintners, with warm, sunny weather in November extending into early summer. Nelson Grape & Wine reported that ‘conditions during flowering were excellent and . . . we had a good fruit set’.

However, after Nelson’s warmest December since records began in 1862, January proved hot and wet, with heavy floods in Golden Bay. Two ex-tropical cyclones then gave Nelson its wettest-ever February, with 3.7 times the month’s normal rainfall, and March was also wetter than usual.

‘Picking started in early March, with some vineyards being picked early to salvage some fruit,’ reported Appleby Vintners. ‘In some varieties the tight bunches, moisture and hot nights resulted in diseases like botrytis and sour rot. In most varieties, sugar levels were low and acid levels were high.’

Seifried Estate saw 2018 as a vintage ‘to remember with a very early and intense start – and as quickly as it began, it was over’. ‘Chardonnay fared the best,’ said Appleby Vintners, ‘and will make some amazing wines. Sauvignon Blanc also weathered the storms very well . . .’

 

Marlborough

‘With perfect December flowering conditions, the hottest January on record and the wettest February by far, vintage 2018 was ripe with challenges,’ summed up Winepress, Marlborough’s regional wine magazine.

At 313,038 tonnes, the region’s growers handled 77.4 per cent of New Zealand’s total grape harvest. Their third-largest crop was 4 per cent bigger than 2017, but still smaller than in 2016 (323,290 tonnes) and 2014 (329,571 tonnes). Sauvignon Blanc was overwhelmingly the principal variety (86.1 per cent), trailed distantly by Pinot Noir (6 per cent), Pinot Gris (3.6 per cent) and Chardonnay (3.1 per cent).

In spring, a warm September was followed by a warm, dry, sunny October and a very dry November. At the start of summer, December brought ideal weather for the vines’ flowering – warm, very sunny and dry.

In January, however, the weather was notably hot and wet, with below-average sunshine. With mean temperatures 2.6°C above average, it was the hottest January on record in Blenheim. January rainfall was 180 per cent of the long-term average and exceeded October, November and December combined.

In late summer, two ex-tropical cyclones gave Marlborough its wettest February on record. Winepress described ‘a summer tunnel of warm rain, which heightened botrytis fears while creating abundant healthy canopies’. ‘Have you ever seen Marlborough greener and leafier?’ observed the hugely experienced winemaker, John Forrest. ‘We have lots of leaf to ripen an average crop.’

While stimulating vegetative growth, the heavy rains in January and February (almost three times the average, for the two-month period) also slowed ripening. ‘Those rain events that saw canopies and berries thrive like triffids, also presented a number of disease threats,’ noted New Zealand Winegrower. ‘It has been a costly year for growers, with numerous thinnings, mechanical shakings and pluckings having taken place since January, and a plethora of sprays being needed to avoid potential disease threats.’

In early autumn, March was warmer and wetter (136 per cent of the long-term average), but also slightly sunnier, than normal. Rain in late March started ‘ramping things up for both botrytis and slip skin,’ reported Saint Clair. However, April was a very average month, with mean temperatures, sunshine hours and rainfall all close to normal.

At the end of Marlborough’s warmest-ever growing season, many winemakers were upbeat about the quality of the 2018 vintage. Steve Pellett, of Stanley Estates, in the Awatere Valley, reported ‘a great harvest, with really good fruit quality and great flavours’.

Kirsten Creasy, a research winemaker, told New Zealand Winegrower that the grapes’ fruit flavours developed well at low brix (sugar) levels. ‘She says parcels of fruit picked in mid-March had great flavours despite the fact they were harvested at 17 to 18 brix. Acids were also noticeably lower, which has been put down to the warmer than average night temperatures.’

Sam Weaver, of Churton, was ‘more than happy. . . . I think the Sauvignon Blanc this year is probably better than any we have picked since 2015. It has fantastic flavour and a fantastic balance between ripe fruit, with slightly lower sugars [potential alcohol], but also good backbone of acidity.’ Pinot Noir was more challenging, with disease pressure forcing ‘ultra-selective’ hand-picking and sorting.

Kevin Judd, of Greywacke, hand-harvested Pinot Noir at ‘good physiological ripeness’, but noted the variety needed ‘careful hand-sorting to eliminate botrytis’. Greywacke’s vintage concluded in late April with the harvest of ‘superb, botrytis-affected Pinot Gris at 34 brix’.

Ben Glover, of Glover Family Wines (Zephyr), predicted Sauvignon Blanc from 2018 will ‘express more tropical fruit than herbaceous elements . . . Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are looking spectacular’.

Tamra Kelly-Washington, of Seresin, also viewed Chardonnay as a ‘standout’, together with Sauvignon Blanc. ‘Both varieties benefitted from early picking, retaining stunning, fresh acidity and lovely concentration of flavours.’

 

Canterbury

At 11,157 tonnes of grapes (a 35 per cent bigger crop than in 2017), Canterbury – including its dominant sub-region, Waipara, in North Canterbury – produced 2.8 per cent of the country’s wine in 2018. Sauvignon Blanc accounted for nearly half the crop (47 per cent), followed by Pinot Noir (19.7 per cent), Pinot Gris (15.8 per cent) and Riesling (11.2 per cent).

Spring started with a warm September, followed by a warm, dry October and an extremely dry November. In late November, one vineyard reported ‘good doses of sunshine here in North Canterbury. The vine canopy is rocketing high thanks to a lush spring (no frost for the first time in eight years – touch wood!)’

Summer began with a warm, dry December. Christchurch then recorded its hottest January since records began in 1863, but the city’s rainfall was more than three times normal. The exceptionally wet weather continued during February, when Christchurch recorded almost three times its normal rainfall.

Pegasus Bay, at Waipara, expressed relief that the hot summer had led to an early harvest. ‘There were big fruit sets and we were tracking three weeks ahead of harvest date. . . . If we hadn’t had those higher temperatures in January, we could have been looking at a rain-affected season.’

Waipara’s producers were generally upbeat in their forecasts about wine quality from 2018. ‘After a warm and at times humid season, we have been picking gorgeous fruit,’ Black Estate reported on 23 March.

‘This harvest was the earliest we have ever finished,’ observed Kym Rayner, of Torlesse, on 25 May. ‘I have already bottled our light oak 2018 Chardonnay and I am very happy with it.’ Greystone was ‘thrilled’ with the harvest. ‘The whites are showing beautiful phenolic ripeness and it’s probably our best Pinot Noir vintage since 2013.’

 

Otago

At 11,528 tonnes, 2018 was a record crop in Central and North Otago (the Waitaki Valley), exceeding the 2017 vintage by 36 per cent, but it still accounted for only 2.8 per cent of the national grape harvest. Pinot Noir dominated the crop (79.4 per cent), followed by Pinot Gris (11.1 per cent), Riesling (3.3 per cent), Chardonnay (2.9 per cent) and Sauvignon Blanc (2.4 per cent).

In spring, a dry September led into an extremely dry, warm October and warm November. The early heat continued into summer, when in December Cromwell experienced well above average temperatures for the third consecutive month.

In the middle of summer, Cromwell’s maximum temperatures in January reached 30°C on 21 days, compared to its usual average of six days exceeding 30°C in an entire year. Temperatures soared to 37.6°C at Clyde on 30 January.

However, in late summer, Cromwell recorded its wettest February on record, followed by a wet start to autumn, when March also brought higher than average rainfall.

Harvest ‘started earlier than at any other time in history,’ New Zealand Winegrower noted, quoting prominent viticulturist James Dicey: ‘The block that we harvested on 1 March is usually done around 21–23 March.’

Dicey reflected that although February is normally the hottest month in Central Otago, ‘we had less than half of January’s heat. We also had 152 mm of rain in February, more than the previous nine months combined. Surprisingly, the grapes held up really well.’

Rockburn, which picked fruit over two weeks earlier than usual, was ‘very excited about the quality of the grapes’. At Terra Sancta, the harvest was finished by 21 March – five days earlier than the previous earliest start to picking. ‘For such a hot summer, the fruit is really pretty and lighter in colour’.

Felton Road viewed the cool, wet February favourably, as it enabled ripening to slow after the record hot and dry spring and summer of 2017/18. On 14 April, its wines were ‘all looking terrific’.

Grasshopper Rock, at Alexandra, also had record mid-season heat. ‘Despite picking three weeks earlier than normal, the fruit quality was excellent . . .’

After a season ‘that was off the charts in terms of heat’, Misha’s Vineyard winemaker Olly Masters observed acids were ‘lower than normal’. Highlights included Gewürztraminer and Riesling, with Pinot Noir revealing ‘good weight and fruit ripeness’.