New Zealand wine: A vintage vintage

01 October, 2012

Villa Maria, Richmond Brook, Blenheim

The 2012 vintage is down more than 20% in places, but the Kiwis are happy to try to strike a balance between demand and supply. Christian Davis reports

The 2012 vintage in New Zealand has come in at 269,000 tonnes. That is down 59,000 tonnes, or 18%, on 2011. The growing season was the coolest on record since the early 1990s, according to Jim Robertson, Pernod Ricard Premium Wine Brands’ global wine ambassador, New Zealand brands.

David Cox, director, Europe, for the industry’s generic body, the New Zealand Wine Growers (NZWG), tells Drinks International: “The vintage was two to three weeks late. It has been cool and wet during flowering but we have had a bit of an Indian summer. The last six to eight weeks, March/April, have been glorious, particularly in Marlborough.”

So despite being down 23% in Marlborough, NZ’s largest, most important wine-producing region, the New Zealanders are far from down in the mouth about it. 

Alastair Maling, Villa Maria’s general manager for winemaking and viticulture, reckons the late burst of fine weather meant the Kiwis “got out of jail”. “There was a lot of concern with a cool summer, overcast,” he says. “It was an unusual season, one of the toughest in Hawkes Bay (a warm region best known for NZ’s more full-bodied reds, particularly varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which make up Bordeaux blends). But then in April we had the most sunshine hours in 85 years. So, winemakers have been left with a smile on their faces.”

Cox says: “New Zealand is a small country so we are not in the volume game. We want to bring value back. Smaller volume will allow growers to refuse some of the cheaper and bulk offers. It will eliminate or at least reduce discounting at entry level.”

Peter Yealands, of Yealands Estate in Marlborough’s Awatere Valley, is a larger-than-life figure in the otherwise sedate, understated, NZ wine trade. He puts things into context, saying: “New Zealand produces fewer than 1% of global wine production. We are a drop in the ocean and Marlborough is close to maximising its geographical boundaries. In my view, we have currently reached about three-quarters of maximum possible capability.”

The size and quality of the vintage is obviously the be-all and end-all for any winemaker but in New Zealand that appears more so. Apart from being a small-scale producer compared to the likes of France, Italy, Spain, Australia and Chile, NZ holds a premium price position so the last thing it wants is oversupply and a surplus. In the UK, for example, NZ’s largest export market, the average price of a bottle of table wine stands at £4.88, according to Nielsen. For New Zealand, it is a significant £6.32.

That does not mean NZ is ‘coining it’. David Cox points out that the currency rate fluctuations have damaged profit margins.

Returning to vintages, 2008 was a big vintage with yields approaching 10 tonnes per hectare. It was not great in quality and the Kiwis were left with a surplus. Cox says 2009 and 2010 were more in balance, but 2011 was high again at 328,000 tonnes, up 62, 000 on 2010. Yields were at 9.8 tonnes per hectare.

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