Labour shortages, rain excesses and Omicron threats challenged several of the country's wine regions during vintage 2022. But with tanks full, demand strong and an "exceptional" late summer enjoyed by many, the harvest appears to have yielded as many good moments as grim.
In 2014, the total crush for the region was 210 tonnes with Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Gris being the dominant varieties. Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Merlot, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Pinotage, Cab blends and Chambourcin make up the rest.
In this climate, varieties with small or loose bunches tend to do best.
In terms of soil types, they differ dramatically within this small region, although clay with a shallow topsoil profile is the most predominant. Heat units and sunshine hours allow for good brix levels but the possibility of rain always mean viticultural practices need to be at their best. Split canopies like Scott Henry with good fruit exposure are common and careful site selection on slopes with the potential for good air movement is essential. As is the correct rootstock and clonal mix, suited to our unique terroir.
While the region is producing just a small amount of the current New Zealand wine tally at the moment, it is not standing still. Within the next few years it is expected to nearly double, in terms of tonnages.
Like many other wine regions around the world, Northland is at the mercy of the conditions. We are the earliest in the country to begin vintage, normally around late January. While we may start before anyone else, we don’t necessarily finish early and it is not unusual for harvest to continue right through to the second week of April when the later varieties come on stream.
I’d say we’d average four vintages a decade that are excellent, four that we are happy with and two we’d like to forget.
In terms of marketing our wine, the majority of the current production is sold locally as we have the advantage of capitalising on the high numbers of tourists, both domestic and international, visiting the region. Given Northland isn’t recognised as a wine growing region, (when compared with some of the others in New Zealand), sales outside can be challenging.
Small production also means higher cost of production making it uneconomic to compete at lower price points.
However the region is taking steps to increase its reputation. Mark Nobillo has been working with Northland Winegrowers for a number of years to improve viciticultural practices and the quality of fruit in that time has improved dramatically.
Winemaking workshops are also held annually bringing in winemakers from around the country to share information and improve quality.
It is not something that happens overnight, we accept that. But if you look back at the past 20 years, the experience of those involved in Northland’s wine industry is growing and the knowledge of what it takes to produce quality grapes coupled with a better understanding of winemaking practices is definitely paying off.
That is reflected in the on-going confidence to increase plantings in this part of New Zealand. We are now also seeing experienced winemakers returning to the region, which is a positive sign as we see them as the future.
The knowledge they have gained elsewhere will ensure the on-going quality levels increasing.
The earth’s wine axis won’t change by what happens in Northland, but I’d like to think we can contribute to what is already one of the world’s most dynamic wine industries. ν