Rain back in November 2020 is paying huge dividends in our Hawke’s Bay vineyards nearly four months later.
It was that rain that gave the vines the boost they needed to develop exceptionally full, high leaf canopies. Even after leaves were trimmed and cut to allow air and sun on the low-hanging fruit, there were heaps of leaves to capture the sun’s energy and drive the development of the grapes.
“It gave us a massive engine, the vineyard was purring like a V8 out there,” says viticulturist Tony Smith.
That meant an early start to harvest on 28 February, with Chardonnay for our Irongate wines being hand-picked ten days earlier than most years.
“Harvest has been getting earlier in recent years. We had an inkling at budburst that we might be ahead of schedule, and again at flowering. In recent weeks, we’ve seen great sugar accumulation in the grapes, and excellent flavour profiles.”
If all goes well, the Hawke’s Bay harvest might wrap up well before the end of March.
And the benefits of that November rain don’t end with this vintage. The canopies are still strong, which means that the leaves are still building carbohydrates and storing it in the trunk and roots.
“When winter comes, our vines won’t be going to sleep on an empty stomach,” says Tony. “That should set us up really well for vintage 2022.”
Challenges are nothing new to us – we’re always contending with the weather, and that can be a fickle beast! When Covid struck, it was as much of a shock to us as to anyone, but we recognised it as a challenge and rose to meet it head-on.
Apart from being affected in the same way as everyone else – lock-downs, social distancing, dealing with issues such as personal stress and commercial supply chain constraints – we have seen two rather unique effects on our industry.
One is that the seasonal flow of winemakers between the northern and southern hemisphere has stopped. It is tradition in the wine industry that our younger winemakers, especially, head north in our winter to work a vintage in Europe or North America, and for theirs to come down to us when we harvest. That enables winemakers to work through two vintages per year. This not only doubles their experience, but also leads to a healthy interchange of ideas.
We’re quite used to having French, Chinese, Italian, Argentinian, German, South African, Chilean, American, Canadian, Czech, Hungarian, Danish, and English wine enthusiasts working in Marlborough every vintage. This year, we haven’t been able to recruit abroad, but we do have a fair few other nationalities who are stuck in the country because of Covid. And, of course, and our veteran German winemaker, Jens Merkle!
The other effect of Covid is that the impact on the hospitality industry means that there is less demand for wine made specifically to be enjoyed on-premise. So, this vintage we’ll be making less of our wine aimed at restaurants. The good news is that we now have more grapes we can use to make the kind of wines you enjoy at home!
Grapes are like honoured guests in the winery. When the first lot arrive at our winery a few weeks from now, we want to be ready to give them the welcome they deserve.
We’ve made sure there is ample space for them, with all but a few of the winery tanks empty and getting scrubbed clean, so we’ll be ready to receive the bounty that will come pouring in. We’re checking every piece of equipment to make sure no electrical or mechanical hiccup prevents us from giving our precious grapes the royal treatment. Every hopper and crusher, every press, pump and pipe need to be spick and span.
And we’re making sure we have the right people to welcome the guests. We’ve brought extra staff on board for harvest, with older hands showing the newbies how things should be done.
We want everything to run smoothly – not just because it’s stressful enough when your year’s production arrives at your doorstep all at once, but because we want to be able to able to preserve every bit of quality we get from the vineyard. We want to be able to crush, ferment or cool the loads that come in at the most appropriate time, in the best way we can. Our winemakers want to treat every batch optimally to preserve its unique characteristics at every step of the journey from vine to wine.
Having the winery fully ready gives our winemakers the options they need, so they can ensure that you get the best wine in your glass.
Winegrowers can be a finicky lot. We want the sun to shine on us, but for it to rain elsewhere. So far in 2021, our wishes have been granted.
Our Marlborough vineyards are seeing lots of bright sunlight, with less than half the usual amount of rain. At the same time, rainfall in the headwaters of the Wairau River ensures that we have enough water to give our vines the amount of water they need to flourish.
If it continues like this, the 2021 harvest could even surpass the great vintages of 2019 and 2020.
Of course, there is still 50 days or so before we start harvesting, and the weather might throw up some surprises. But we’re ready.
Fastidious vineyard management is often enough to produce good grapes in bad years. And in good years . . . the rewards can be even greater.
Over recent weeks, our vineyard teams have worked 24/7 to use the small windows of opportunity at specific stages of berry development to make telling adjustments, for instance through judicious leaf plucking.
If the rain stays away, it will be great. If it comes, it won’t be too bad either.Good leaf cover up top and moisture in the soil below is setting up our Hawke’s Bay vineyards for a great run-up to the 2021 harvest. “The rain we had in November has provided good soil moisture. Together with warm weather, this has created a lush canopy and our task now is to ensure that we get enough sun and wind exposure for the grapes,” says Hawke’s Bay Viticultural Manager Tony Smith. While the vineyard staff are trimming the vines and plucking leaves, the vines are working hard to start pushing the grape berries through veraison. This process, during which the berries change colour – from green to black in red varieties and golden in white varieties. At the same time, the grapes become softer and sweeter. Veraison has just started and will run a few more weeks. “The drier we can keep the grapes until harvest, the better,” Tony says. With some wet weather in the long-term forecast, the team are bracing to set up the vines to dry quickly once the rain has passed. “All we can do now is trim, pluck … and pray!”
We’re going underground with the slogan: “Water to the roots!”
Because, when you think about it, where you really want the water for your vines is underground, where the roots are.
That’s why the drip lines on our new vineyard development on Selmes Road, Marlborough, are being installed 300mm below the soil surface.
Burying your irrigation system does bring some challenges, such as the apertures becoming clogged with roots as they seek a direct line to the water source. To keep the roots at bay, the apertures are impregnated with copper. Laying pipe underground is also slightly more expensive than stringing the irrigation lines above ground, as we currently do. So why bother?
It’s all to achieve greater sustainability.
For one thing, we’ll reduce our water use, because less of it will evaporate. With the top layer of the soil being drier, there also won’t be so much to feed the shallow roots of weeds. With less weed growth, we can save on driving machinery up and down our vineyard rows. And we can further cut down our use of sprays.
On top of that, having our drip lines underground will also mean less (accidental) damage to the pipes by machinery, and less (very deliberate!) damage to the pipes by rabbits.
The plan is to retrofit more vineyard blocks with underground drip-lines over time, especially our expanding organic vineyard holdings.