+ 2013

CENTRAL OTAGO VINTAGE REPORT 2013 BY JOELLE THOMSON

29 Apr 2013

VINTAGE SUMMARY The 2013 vintage in Central Otago was foreshadowed by Jack Frost’s chilly visit in spring but thanks to the hot, dry and settled weather which followed, the quality of the grapes – and the vines - was extremely healthy. Not that it was all plain sailing. This year’s vintage was relatively short for many in Central Otago. This meant that many winemakers had an extraordinarily busy time bringing in all their grapes in less than a week – an unprecedented experience for many for whom harvest usually takes a couple of weeks – or more. Others experienced variable ripeness levels even on the same vineyard sites, making for a protracted vintage. And in Gibbston there was frost to contend with not only in spring but also in autumn; both seasons wrecking detrimental havoc to the quantities of grapes which were finally harvested. The late frost risk is something that Otago’s other sub-regions are generally able to escape. Despite the many fears throughout the region following the spring frost, the overall quantities of grapes harvested this year were slightly up from last year - by a whole 235 tonnes from 2012. This slight growth is attributed mainly to early fruit set and settled summer weather, says Steve Green of Carrick. The worst crop losses appear to have been in Gibbston and Bendigo; where wineries lost between 10% to 30% of their forecast harvest this year. GIBBSTON Many vineyards in Gibbston Valley lost grapes due to both spring and autumn frosts. Numbers were down from between 10% to 30% because ripening times varied dramatically this year, which created an elongated, perplexing and – for some – a stressful vintage. The flipside is that the long summer, which was sandwiched in between a frosty spring and autumn, ensured that grapes were characterized by a deep colour and soft fruitiness. Dean Shaw from the Central Otago Wine Company says that the spring frosts did not impact on bunch weights this year. Most of the grape he processed – from both Gibbston and from areas throughout the Cromwell Basin - were of average size, thanks to extremely hot weather during March. The most significant fallout of frost damage in Gibbston this year occurred in spring and affected flowering rather than ripening late in the piece. People without windmills in Gibbston lost a significant amount; up to 30%, but overall the quality of grapes harvested was extremely high; due to the settled summer weather. WANAKA Vintage in Wanaka in 2013 was the best year of the past three. The vines are the healthiest they have been in that time, thanks to settled warm weather throughout the 2013 ripening season, which enabled Wanaka’s vineyards to get back on track after a drought three years ago. Nick Mills of Rippon Vineyard says that the drought at the end of 2010 caused grapevines in Wanaka to struggle to gain nutritional uptake from the soils. This caused uneven ripening and growth over the past two vintages. In contrast to the past two years, 2013 saw grapes in Wanaka with the most uniform levels of ripeness in the past three years. The grapes this year were in extremely good condition with little to no disease pressure and high levels of ripeness and colour intensity. CROMWELL, PISA, BENDIGO Fast spring flowering, hot summer weather and high pressured harvesting were the key features of vintage 2013 in the Cromwell basin this year. When the swift spring flowering in 2012 was followed by hot summer weather - particularly in mid-January - the vintage came together, allowing extremely consistent ripening. The downside was the frost in spring. This hit some early blocks, decimating some of the flowering. Thankfully, not all vines were effected. The overall reduction in quantity was relatively minimal. Bunch sizes were generally average, with some slightly above average when measured by Dean Shaw at COWCO across a range of different vineyards, in mid April. This year also marks the first time winemaker Lucie Lawrence at Aurum Wines will make an orange wine. It’s a Pinot Gris with 100% skin contact and a couple of very clean, beeswax-lined amphorae pots but without any added yeasts or sulphur dioxide. The Pinot Gris grapes were cold soaked for about five days with entirely natural, spontaneous fermentation and intense orange colour and texture following. For many in the Cromwell, Pisa and Bendigo area, this year’s harvest was extremely short; running over just two to three days for Pinot Noir, with white grapes such as Riesling coming in later. Bendigo was badly hit by the spring frost but overall crop loss was significantly lower than predicted. Approximately 10% fewer grapes were harvested rather than the much-feared 30%+ reduction, which had been anticipated. Despite the frost, the season was truncated and extremely swift for wineries, such as Quartz Reef, where all Pinot Noir was picked in just two days compared with 10 days or longer; which is more usual in this area. This makes 2013 the quickest harvest ever for this winery. Most importantly, the quality of the fruit was high. Clean grapes, relatively riper than usual tannins and healthier canopies at harvest this year all translated to flavour ripeness at lower sugar ripeness, due to the canopy not being as advanced at harvest as it has been in previous years. This gave good uniformity to the grapes, which were extremely healthy when picked, due to the dry weather. There was little to no disease pressure leading up to harvest. BANNOCKBURN The beginning of the season was relatively cold in Bannockburn but the short hot summer that followed made up for it, resulting in extremely healthy vines this year. The warm season was relatively short, however, making for a stark contrast with much of the rest of the country’s 2013 vintage. Extremely hot weather in February saw a drop in acidity and was followed by a cool end to the vintage; the grapes have slightly lower brix levels than last year, due to earlier picking dates at the cooler end of the season. A 10% crop reduction was experienced by some Bannockburn wineries, but mostly for white varieties – Pinot Gris and Riesling, in particular – rather than reds. Vine health in Bannockburn this year was excellent across the board; the second vintage of late ripening Chenin Blanc grapes proved the point at Mt Difficulty where exceptionally large, exceptionally healthy, disease-free bunches were still hanging out on the vines in mid April. Bannockburn generally experienced extremely good vine health this year, due to the dry season – and more hands-on work in the vineyard by some. “The better you run your vineyard, the less difference you experience between the clones. Within the growing season, you already adjust within each clone what needs to be done with skillful canopy management. I am now spending more time hand tending my grapes and that’s really paying off,” says Steve Davies of Doctors Flat Vineyard, in Bannockburn. ALEXANDRA The last area to ripen in Central Otago also regularly records the driest, hottest and coldest weather conditions and this year that sub-region, Alexandra, was affected by frost. Not that vineyards in the area lost crops to frost. Rather, they harvested smaller berries. This meant a higher skin to berry ratio and extremely intense colour; both unexpected factors as a result of the spring frost. Both Mike Wing, viticulturist of Two Paddocks, and Phil Hanford of Grasshopper Rock, say the 2013 weather pattern was most similar to the 2007 and 2010 vintages. In each of these years, they experienced cooler than average spring temperatures but warmer than average February and March periods. Two Paddocks vineyards did not lose fruit to the frost. It did, however, experience a slightly lighter crop, due to dehydration from the dry weather late in the season. Like the rest of Central Otago, Alexandra had relatively warm, very settled weather in late summer. And the average bunch weights in Alexandra varied significantly this year too. Bunch weights for Grasshopper Rock were higher than expected at 126 grams and at Two Paddocks the bunch weights were smaller than expected. Like all of Central Otago, Alexandra experienced a series of critical frosts in early November. Vineyards there escaped damage, thanks to effective frost protection system; based on sprinklers, which ensured the vines were not damaged. *************** Joelle Thomson is the wine writer for The Dominion Post, Christchurch Press and Waikato Times. She edits Drinksbiz magazine, writes for NZ Winegrower and teaches New Zealand wine courses and Wine & Spirit Education Trust. www.joellethomson.com