The wines from the rain-affected harvest of Hawke’s Bay this year have already been written off in many people’s minds. The thoughts of the catastrophic floods over Anzac weekend at the end of picking seem to have sealed the fate of the reputation of the vintage, but the truth is that like every vintage, there is variation, with some excellent wine and some not so good.
The warm and favourable weather over the summer months provided the heat units, ripeness and underlying strength of the fruit. However, rain events in harvest resulted in disease pressure, firstly with downy mildew followed by botrytis. How the fruit was affected was dependant on the state of maturity of the fruit, and ultimately vineyard siting, but it was essentially Chardonnay as the variety that was affected most. Growers reported a rapid overnight degradation of the fruit as never seen before. Earlier ripening varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris were generally harvested in excellent condition before the rain, and the thicker skin red varieties withstood disease to be picked in fine weather after. A portion of Chardonnay, from precocious sites, or very late sites escaped the damage, but it appears the variety was generally in the wrong stage of development at the wrong time…
With juice safely and soundly converted to wine, and stored in tank and barrel, one could make an initial appraisal of the wines. A more definitive assessment can only be made a half year down the track, but the indications are that good and satisfying wines have been made, though the yields are lower than expected, and the very top-end wines will be available in much reduced quantities. Overall, the wines may veer towards the more elegant weighted styles, but there is ripeness and more than sufficient depth and richness in all varieties, bar Chardonnay. The Chardonnays that are successful appear to have proper flavour ripeness at lower sugar accumulation, producing wines with less alcohol – a desirable outcome in today’s trends.
One unfortunate result of the rain was the pressure that rapid harvesting put on tank space in wineries. Some reds were given insufficient time on skins, as they were vacated from vats to allow the intake of newly picked fruit arriving. Another was that a considerable amount of fruit was left unpicked, as the costs to sort and select for healthy grapes would have made labour costs prohibitive in the making of the wines from such fruit. These issues of management have not had to be dealt with in the last decade of vintages in Hawke’s Bay, as the weather has over that period has been so good. It seems that experienced hands at the helm were needed to come through this challenging vintage. In 2011, it may be best to follow the wineries that have had a long and strong track record.
Following are my impressions from visits to a number of key producers in Hawke’s Bay over the period of 30 May to 1 June: