2023 New Zealand Whites: The Cyclone Vintage 


It was not the cover shoot of dreams, nor was it the image the editor thought they’d be publishing in the post-harvest issue of the local wine industry magazine. However, the New Zealand Winegrower could not ignore Cyclone Gabrielle’s impact on the wine community and its vineyards. Philip Barber of Petane Wines stood in his shorts and Wellington boots, a thick layer of silt, sludge and debris covering what had been his flourishing Hawke’s Bay vineyard and home a few days earlier.  

Cyclone Gabrielle made landfall on New Zealand’s North Island on February 12, 2023. Authorities declared the storm that followed over the next four days the worst storm since Cyclone Bola in 1988. Huge swells battered the coast, numerous landslides occurred, and river silts buried some homes and vineyards. In Hawke’s Bay, people climbed onto rooftops in fear for their lives because of widespread flooding. Forced evacuations, bridge collapses and power outages left winegrowers and friends unaccounted for over several days.

South Island producers appeared to be suffering from survivor's guilt, which was not the headline the wine community had been hoping for. While their friends feared for their lives and livelihoods, the South Island had a comparative drizzle. The Marlborough region recorded average rainfall in February, although in the more exposed Awatere sub-region, it was twice the average of the Wairau Valley.

Sauvignon Blanc dominates the Marlborough landscape, where ambitious producers are looking to emphasize texture rather than aromatics.

A white wine vintage report on New Zealand inevitably focuses on Marlborough. It dominates the country’s white wine scene, accounting for 81% of the nation’s total white crop, with Sauvignon Blanc making up 78% of the production. And, following the 2022 harvest, growers and producers were relieved in 2023 – relieved after a bad season plagued with rain and disease pressure the year before, leading to forced picking decisions and wine infected by botrytis. Indeed, 2022 was neither the most fun of vintages to make nor to taste, and many remain somewhat scarred by the experience.

According to the annual Vineyard Monitoring Report from the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI), rain in November and December 2022 and January 2023 created significant disease pressure while boosting growth in the canopy and weeds. The response? Shorter periods between sprays and the opening of the canopy not only increased the efficacy of those sprays but also bolstered ventilation and sunlight exposure. In its vintage survey, the MPI noted: “A third of the respondents described the season as challenging due to the regular rainfall, but most were happy with results, both in terms of yield and quality.”

Tasting the 2023s, the vintage is clearly not exuberant. Going into harvest, there was undoubtedly some post-twenty-two stress, which may have affected the response to the season. Based on the greener, less flamboyant aromatic spectrum of the wines, was it a case of safety first, tropical fruit later? Clive Jones, long-time winemaker of Nautilus, concedes, “Knowing everything was on the knife edge and after last year, we [the region’s growers] were probably a bit trigger-happy as a broad generalization. ‘Can we pick today, or should we leave it until tomorrow? Let’s pick today.’ Were people less risk-averse? Maybe we could have pushed it further in retrospect.”

That said, there appears to be a general decline in thiols, which are organic sulfur compounds that contribute to Sauvignon Blanc's distinct aroma and flavor profile. They provide typical scents of passionfruit and cat’s pee, but recently, there has been a move toward less exuberance and a more mineral, pure-fruited, linear profile. Framingham has always been one of the more offbeat Marlborough producers, even though it is now owned by Sogrape, whose brands include Mateus in Portugal and Silk & Spice in the US. Since first visiting Framingham in 2010, wild ferments, skin contact, oxidative handling, lees and low sulfur have been part of their white wine armory. While the less conventional methods were once reserved for their F-Series, these techniques have trickled down to the mainstream range at the estate and the wider region. “In the past four or five years, we have held our ferments on gross lees. It seems to build more flesh on the palate, and we are leaving them unsulfured [until bottling],” says Framingham’s Andrew Brown. Whereas aromatics were once the be-all and end-all, he adds, “We are all talking about texture as well as fruit and acid profiles today. Everyone is looking for mouthfeel.”

In broad terms, the 2023 wines are pure, juicy and fresh, with zesty acidity and moderate alcohol levels of 12.5% to 13%. After a year of powdery mildew and botrytis pressure, 2023 came through as a clean vintage. However, there were some unfortunate firsts: downy mildew made its debut appearance in the region because of regular rains. However, a clement March and early April 2023 notes the MPI, “combined with increased canopy management, including more frequent spraying, meant neither disease caused a major reduction in grape yield or quality.” At the cheaper end of the spectrum, there’s a definite increase in quality compared with 2022, but there is still dilution and a vague array of Sauvignon Blanc flavors. Can you really hope for concentration when cropping at an average of 14 tonnes per hectare (approximately 98hl/ha)?

Martinborough – The Growing Season

Across the Cook Strait on the North Island, Martinborough was less lucky than Marlborough, but producers were still counting their blessings that they were outside the direct path of Cyclone Gabrielle. It was a temperate and wet season, with 680 millimeters of rainfall during the growing period, almost in line with the region’s annual average total. There was no letting up through the damp squib of the summer. It was a constant battle in the vineyards without a sustained dry period. Roger Parkinson of Nga Waka publishes growing season data in his annual vintage report. The headline for 2023? “I can’t stand the rain.” A reflection, he says, of “how we felt about the season and acknowledging the recent death of the great Tina Turner!” Meanwhile, the difficult season at Palliser led to the grapes being picked based on disease pressure rather than ripeness. Naturally, lower average yields in Martinborough helped to some degree. Still, it’s a lower alcohol year with high acidity and less flavor ripeness, and botrytis has inevitably crept into some cuvees. This will be a year for the whites rather than the reds.

Hawke’s Bay – The Growing Season

The arrival of Cyclone Gabrielle in mid-February did not spell the end of the season for everyone. The statistics show that the region’s harvest was only down 4% from 2022, with late-ripening red varieties reaching the finish line. But Chardonnay, the white variety the region opts to hang its hat on, really suffered. In this report, the top Chardonnays from the region hail from the excellent 2021 and good 2022 vintages. The top 2021s are perhaps the best yet. I challenge any Burgundy lover not to be impressed by Bilancia’s Tiratore and Trellinoe, Craggy Range’s Les Beaux Cailloux, Tony Bish’s many Chardonnays (particularly Zen), or Trinity Hill’s 125, among others. It is a vintage full of substance, concentration and power, and it just has the edge over 2020 and 2022.

Central Otago – The Growing Season

Whites represent a small slice of the Central Otago production, with Pinot Noir accounting for 75% of its wines. Far, far away from the troubles caused by Gabrielle, Central Otago remained in its own bubble, quite unlike the rest of the country. Considered semi-continental, it is also home to the most arid part of New Zealand. Phil Handford of Grasshopper Rock explains in his vintage report that it was a tough start to the season: “By December 31, we had a season which had seen a frosty start, more rainy days, greater disease pressure and running at least a week behind normal.” A dry, warmer-than-average spell helped the vines play catch-up. There were a few drought concerns, with just 44 millimeters of water falling across in the 82 days, but a rain episode refreshed the vineyards on February 21. The finish to the season threw a few frosts to keep them on their toes, but Central Otago largely escaped much of the drama that regions further north on the east coast suffered. It has a reputation for being an unpredictable territory with the danger of late frosts and snow occasionally falling in summer, but it’s been comparatively benign. “Only once in the past 25 years have we had a seriously small crop, which was 2005,” says Jen Parr of Valli. “We have had five years of relative ease, no nasty surprises except the occasional hail or frost. We just feel guilty about what’s happening elsewhere in the country – you could call it survivor syndrome.” Readers can expect the usual pure, pristine Rieslings and supple Chardonnays from the region.

Looking Ahead

The New Zealand wine industry’s success and financial viability are based on one grape variety. It’s a rollercoaster ride for producers, with concerns of oversupply turning to anxieties over shortages within months. In the lead-up to Christmas 2023, there were still tanks filled with wine from the 2023 vintage, and importers were sending out cut-price festive deals in a bid to shift stock and empty tanks in time for the upcoming 2024 harvest. But the forecast pendulum has swung in a matter of weeks. The 2024 harvest looks set to be small, with predictions of a decline in production by anywhere from 10% to 30%, depending upon whom you ask. Now, they’re glad to have the stock in the cellar as the grass-covered hills turn dry and brown. While winemakers are pleased that a smaller crop will lead to quality rather than quantity, the accountants are less happy, as are the large retailers who are scratching their heads amid talks of restricted allocations.

Sauvignon Blanc continues to be a runaway success despite the wine literati sniffing condescendingly at its mention, which is deeply unfair. However, I’m convinced that New Zealand should hang its hat on Chardonnay when it comes to holding its own in the fine wine sector. Yet, plantings have dropped by more than 5% in the past decade, and exports have stagnated or fallen, depending on the vintage. At the same time, the number of hectares dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc has increased by 35%, and exports have been up by 73% since 2014. While market demand has ensured the growth of Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, the economics of growing the variety make it much more attractive to the grape-grower. Using the 2023 vintage as an example, a tonne (metric) of Sauvignon Blanc fetched NZ$2300, while Chardonnay achieved an average of NZ$2760. Despite the slight premium paid for Chardonnay, the average tonnage per hectare is where the variety comes unstuck. In 2023, a Chardonnay vineyard averaged 8.3 tonnes per hectare versus 16 for Sauvignon Blanc. The result is that the revenue a grower makes from tending a hectare of Chardonnay averages out to about $24,288, while the same hectare planted with Sauvignon Blanc would raise $38,180 (NZW Vineyard Monitoring Report Marlborough, 2023). Considering the numbers, it’s hardly surprising that vineyard owners are choosing to grow Sauvignon Blanc rather than Chardonnay, particularly with expenses rising year-over-year – especially labor costs. The future of Chardonnay relies upon quality wine producers that own their own vineyards or winemakers willing to pay more to assure Chardonnay stays in the ground, which ends up pushing the price of the wine into brackets only Burgundy drinkers think is reasonable.

But it’s not as if Chardonnay is an easy grape to grow. It buds early and in a cool climate that inevitably comes with the risk of spring frost. It is also highly susceptible to powdery mildew. Clones with a tight bunch architecture, like B95, are most exposed to botrytis, while the leaf-eating brown beetle known as the grass grub also loves to munch on Chardonnay vines. Nonetheless, the quality-focused New Zealand wine community shows an increased drive and desire to master Chardonnay. The country launched its first Chardonnay Symposium in October 2023 in Hawke’s Bay. The Marlborough wine community (which has been running a ‘Pinot Bootcamp’ for local winemakers over the past decade) decided to switch varieties in 2022, and its focus is now on exploring Chardonnay, sharing trial wines in a bid to pool knowledge. These are all tangible indicators that the Kiwis are taking Chardonnay more seriously.

That said, New Zealand Chardonnay has been good for as long as I’ve written about New Zealand wine. A decade ago, there were just a handful of excellent Chardonnays, but time has brought about a larger number of what could be termed ‘benchmark wines.’ The original references have become increasingly refined and precise as vines grow older and winemakers gain more experience. Why, then, aren’t sales increasing? Murray Cook, Dog Point’s winemaker and a committee member for the Marlborough boot camp, suggests one of the possible reasons why it has yet to find its place in the market: “Every wine-producing country in the world probably makes a Chardonnay, so it’s a crowded market. New Zealand’s biggest export market, the USA, also makes large volumes of Chardonnay, so it could be seen as taking coals to Newcastle. When New Zealand is thought of, it’s often led by Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and perhaps Chardonnay isn’t on the radar.” That radar needs to be reset, and the 2021 vintage has provided the perfect wines to transmit the message. Cyclones permitting.

I tasted the wines in this report both at home and at various trade tastings in the UK.

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