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We love heat in the vineyard. But in the winery… not so much. Cool temperatures are great to develop fruity flavours when you ferment a wine such as Sauvignon Blanc. That is why you’d often see on a tasting note that the wine was “cool fermented”. By keeping the ferment cool, we can control the metabolic rate of the yeast, thereby influencing how it converts sugar into alcohol and also what flavours are enhanced in the process. Of course, keeping the wine cool after fermentation helps to lock in the flavours. Because cooling is so important in winemaking, our Marlborough winery was especially designed with this in mind. Louvres open at night to allow cool air in, and are closed when day temperatures rise to keep the cool air inside. Having a smaller differential between the ambient temperature and the desired temperature of the wine means we need to use less energy. There is one exception to this chilled-out approach: To start fermentation, we often need to warm up the juice a bit, so the yeast can get going. Rather than spend a lot of energy to generate heat, we use technology to recover the latent heat released by our usual refrigeration processes, and use that for heating. In effect, the same energy that is already used for cooling some tanks is used to heat others! Pretty neat.
It’s time to give back. With another harvest safely in the winery, one can’t help but be in awe of the natural bounty we receive. So, in the slight lull before we need to get back into the vineyard for pruning, we’re devoting our energies to giving back to nature, by attending to the land around our vineyard blocks. One of the places we can give nature a helping hand is in the streams bordering the vineyards. The aptly named Boundary Stream in Marlborough, for instance, can get a bit clogged up by gravel washing down from the high country in times of heavy rain. So, we go in there and scoop out enough of the gravel to allow the stream to flow through to the Wairau River unhindered. Keeping the river to its natural channel and flowing deep enough not only protects our vineyard from potential flooding, but it also helps aquatic life to thrive. Fishes and frogs need to live too. And what do we do with the gravel? In true Babich fashion, we don’t want anything to go to waste. So, we use it to pave our vineyard roads!
We’ve all seen the video clips of someone celebrating their victory before they’ve crossed the finish line and then being pipped at the post. That won’t happen with Babich. Even in a year when we know we’ve done everything as best we can – we’ve created the best possible conditions for our vines to produce excellent grapes and the vineyard is packed with the most luscious fruit – we keep going at it hard until every grape is in the winery. The last thing we want to do, is to undo a year’s hard work in the home stretch. That’s why harvest is such an intense time for us. We need to get the fruit into the winery at just the right time, when they’re as ripe and flavourful and healthy as they can be. That might mean that we need to get heaps done in a short time frame. For our team, it means early starts and late finishes, day after day for about three weeks. Nature does not take weekends off. When the last grapes were brought into our Marlborough winery, there were some tired minds and bodies, but also a great sense of satisfaction. “We want to get the outstanding quality that is in the vineyard into the winery,” says winemaker Adam Hazeldine, “so that we can put it into the bottle for people to enjoy.”  
With the last grapes of the 2021 harvest coming into the winery, comes the day of reckoning. We finally know exactly how big the harvest was and how much wine we will be able to make of each variety. Importantly, we also know how good the wine could be. Cool weather over flowering in Marlborough meant fewer flowers, and therefore fewer bunches. For the first time in five vintages, we did not have to do any crop thinning this year. The effect was more marked in the red varieties, but the whites were affected too, with notably lower volumes of Sauvignon Blanc, for instance. The good news is that the cropping levels we had across the board were close to the levels we like for our reserve level wines, which means that the 2021 vintage should over deliver in terms of quality, with really ripe, concentrated fruit. The downside is that there will be less of it, but wine lovers need not fear – there will still be 750ml in every bottle! But the post-harvest reckoning is about more than just the wine itself. It is also about us. How well did we perform? What have we learnt? What can we do better in the coming year? After more than 100 years of making wine in New Zealand, Babich has developed some high standards – sustainably getting the best quality out of our vineyards and into the bottle. Yet, every year we look at what we’ve done and challenge ourselves to find ways to fine-tune our performance even further. Because in the end, it all makes a difference in your glass.

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.

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