Vintage 2023 is a year to remember for many reasons, not least for New Zealand winemakers. Cyclones in the north and a lack of sun in the south were followed by rain, rain and more rain, which made the year a tricky one, but it is far from being an unmitigated disaster, as the latest news from New Zealand Winegrowers shows.
New Zealand wine exports grew to $2.4 billion, an increase of 25% for the year to May 2023. And while this is positive news for the industry as a whole, one of Marlborough's most experienced winemakers, Simon Waghorn of Astrolabe Wines, remains circumspect about his relative good luck in the quality and volume of grapes he harvested this year. He is not alone.
"I was on tenterhooks in the lead up to harvest 2023. It wouldn’t have taken much more bad weather to devastate vineyards due to the threat of downy mildew, but people were able to get on top of it, even if it was a fright to see. We don’t normally see it in Marlborough and it did feel like we were lacking sunshine for a lot of the season."
Waghorn says it was distressing to see what was going on in the North Island, even if it wasn't all plain sailing in Marlborough.
"We had a lot of sympathy for those guys in the North Island. I don’t know how they got their heads around what happened to their vineyards due to the cyclone, but we are in a lucky spot as we don’t get many bad years in Marlborough. We don't seem to get frost or hail and certainly not the tropical rain that's been happening lately."
Despite this, Marlborough did not escape completely unscathed this year. It was an early season, in terms of bud burst. The lack of sunshine and rain throughout the season made it difficult to get sprays on the vineyards, due to heavy rains early on and this was unnerving.
Now that harvest is over, he is planning to open a new urban winery in the centre of Blenheim. This is on track to be fully functioning for the 2024 harvest and is situated near to the railway station in the centre of Blenheim. One of the local iwi, Rangitane, is constructing it on land owned by the tribe. This means the building will be leased on a long term basis to Astrolabe Wines, which will use it for hand picked grapes and smaller scale wines rather than high volume ones. It will also be the company's office in the centre of Blenheim.
The following Q&A with Simon Waghorn comes from a conversation about vintage.
How did Marlborough fare this year in volume?
"We had a moderate to moderately big crop in Marlborough but we didn’t see the expansion of the berries that we’ve seen in other years such as 2008 and 2014. This year we had long, loose bunches. It wasn’t light but the earlier season was a little less sunny so we pushed our harvest window back by a week to 10 days, which is better than picking early, so we got more flavour development with extended hang time.”
Which grapes did best this year?
"Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were good but Sauvignon is the most important one – it had firm acidity and good maturity levels at harvest so we didn’t have any pressure around picking decisions. Everybody had more available human resources in the winery and field this year, we didn’t have to pick because of fruit deterioration or getting too ripe too quickly"
Is there one grape that out performed the others in 2023?
"People seem to be happy with the aromatic concentration of the wines. Sauvignon has good classic flavours but Pinot Gris was one of the best performers for me."
When were you most concerned during vintage 2023?
“We were holding our breath because the first half of the vintage was so challenging. We were all very thankful and surprised that we came out relatively unscathed after such an unpromising start.”
How are your less well known varieties doing?
"We get a lot of traction with Chenin Blanc, which seems to be popular with sommeliers and the wine media, although we don't have a lot to go around and Albariño is gaining a strong following as a newcomer."
Who is building your new urban winery in Blenheim?
“We got talking to the the Rangitane iwi and decided we could work together so we have a company called Apollo Projects doing the development. We have given them a recipe for what we want there for the facilities and we are buying all the winemaking gear while they put in a functional boutique winery for us in the centre of town.”
In 2022, New Zealand was the world’s sixth largest wine exporter by value, despite producing only 1% of the world’s wine.