The Shout Magazine (New Zealand)

High expectations for new vintage despite COVID-19


While COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of New Zealanders, particularly business owners, winemakers say one good thing to come out of 2020 will be the new vintage.

With the majority of this year’s harvest taking place during Level 3 and 4 Lockdown in March/April in New Zealand, NZ Winegrowers tells The Shout NZ that the restrictions have had an impact on the way the harvest was run but they are not likely to affect the quality of the wine.

“Being classed as essential business meant we were in an extremely privileged position to be able to complete harvest,” says NZ Winegrowers CEO Philip Gregan. “[However] our industry’s most important priority continues to be keeping our people and communities safe, and wineries and vineyards had to follow rigorous requirements to continue to operate.”

Philip Gregan

Gregan says producers had to ensure their processes and operations would be conducted in a way that there is no chance of virus spread occurring.

“This meant operations were impacted, however the majority of international workers had already arrived in New Zealand before the Government closed our borders, so we did not see any major shortages with supply for the vintage,” he says. “The feedback we are getting so far is that is has been a very good vintage, and we are looking forward to some excellent wines coming from this year’s harvest.”

Marcus Pickens, General Manager of Wine Marlborough, agrees that the measures put in place by winemakers during harvest meant that the results will speak for themselves.

“The adoption of new ways was swift and extreme and, as it turns out, incredibly effective,” he says. “People were kept safe, the grapes got off the vines, through the presses and into their tanks and barrels, and it sounds like the quality of fruit is incredible.”

In the Wine Marlborough Vintage 2020 Report, Dog Point viticulturist Nigel Sowman says that if lockdown had occurred in a year like 2018, when disease and weather pressure made for incredibly complex harvest conditions, the industry would have struggled to get through.

But he says the season featured beautiful conditions, being long and dry and slightly cooler towards the end, resulting in a slightly longer hang time. “When the season is fractionally later, you can develop maximum flavour in your grapes.”

In the same report, Rob Agnew from Plant & Food Research Marlborough says that with March being slightly cooler than average, but with warm days and cool nights and almost no rainfall, it was good news for grape growers, because it allowed fruit to ripen in ideal conditions.

Millton Vineyards & Winery‘s Owner and Winemaker, James Millton, agrees that the conditions this year were prime for harvest.

“Our harvest started 10 days early on February 29th and concluded on April 15th,” he tells The Shout NZ. “The warm conditions made the criteria more for acid/sugar balance and phenological ripeness of the seeds, rather than simply hanging the fruit out there. It was of exceptional quality. We have seen similar conditions and taste in 1983, ’86 and ’89 and ’98, all classic years.”

James Millton

Millton says that while the lockdown initially caused a lot of stress, they were able to complete harvest – albeit in a less social fashion.

“We continued with a small group of internationals who were staying on the properties in isolation, so we were able to keep harvesting, albeit very spread out with not so much chatter and laughter,” he says “Which is good for the economics but leaves you with a unquenched thirst at the end of a busy day.”

But while harvest wasn’t as enjoyable as previous years, Millton says he has huge expectations for the vintage.

“It’s now about staying focused not only on the young wines – bringing them up and caring for them like a young child – but also the opportunities and obstacles out there on the horizon. Now we have to attend to the present, and the pleasant.”

Paul Smith, Head Winemaker at Pask Winery, told The Shout NZ that while the 2020 vintage will certainly be remembered for its struggles outside of weather conditions, that they – like most wineries – are focussing on the positives.

“We’ve seen good yields and some of the most exceptional quality in this year’s fruit, showing huge potential so far – of course the proof is in the bottle,” he says.

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