The Covid-19 vintage of 2020 and labour-tight chaser of 2021 were merely a warm-up for 2022, with Omicron's peak running in painful parallel to harvest.
"It was a case of Sauvignon Blanc in our vineyard? Over my dead body," says the Gisborne grape grower who co-owns a 30-hectare vineyard at Hexton with his wife Delwyn.
Looking hale and hearty at the end of the 2016 harvest with no obvious sign of an impending demise, Bell is about to rip out nine hectares of mature grape vines and replant in Sauvignon Blanc.
"I never thought I'd see the day but here we are, poised to pull out three blocks of grapes – Viognier, Arneis and some older Chardonnay – part of a commercial block that has been used in blends or sold on the spot market.
"The rest of our 30-hectare vineyard is planted in boutique, higher-quality, special vines like Albariño, Marsanne, Viognier and Malbec," says Bell.
"And with nine hectares in Sauvignon Blanc, we believe we will have the correct balance of varieties."
The Bells made the decision to plant Sauvignon Blanc for Gisborne-based co-operative GroCo about six months ago. Was it a difficult decision?
"No and yes in that order. Commercially it makes good sense, so in that respect, no. But because we've replanted before and we know the huge amount of work involved, yes, it was a big decision."
The rationale behind the decision was simple.
"We were made aware that GroCo needed Sauvignon Blanc for its export market and that wasn't available locally. They get some from Marlborough but they need a reliable local supply," says Bell. "Gisborne is well-positioned to produce good quality Sauvignon Blanc at realistic prices for both the grower and the winery. That was the primary driver of our decision to replant," he says.
Looking ahead, Bell foresees the need to have larger blocks of commercially-attractive varieties.
"That's the reality of the market. Smaller blocks are a complexity for the wineries. They are a bit of a nuisance to them. We are replacing three small blocks in three different varieties with one larger block of one variety which streamlines and simplifies the operation from the machinery work, staffing and pruning right through to harvesting," says Bell.
"I see our planting as complimentary to Marlborough's Sauvignon Blanc. We are not in competition with Marlborough because they will always hold the premium position in the market for that variety. But we do have a real opportunity in Gisborne to be a second tier of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Given that Sauvignon Blanc is 86 percent of the export market, we have to accept it is now something that should be part of our vineyard portfolio. As with any business venture, it's important to reinvest in the business, but gather knowledge and information to make the best decisions possible.
"The difficulty here is trying to make the right decision based on what the future will look like in four or five years' time when the vines are producing. We haven't got all the information needed so there's an element of crystal ball gazing involved," says Bell.
"But you always need to be ready to move and adapt to the changing demands of the market."
What about the impact of the Gisborne terroir on the classic flavour of Sauvignon Blanc?
"The variety is already being grown here in a small way and to date, growers have produced very good quality wines but the flavour profile will obviously be different from that of Marlborough with their unique soils," says Bell.
GroCo winemaker Anita Ewart-Croy says; "Gisborne has the wonderful benefit of being able to achieve grape physiological ripeness at earlier brix, without irrigation while maximising flavour intensity. Many tools are available to the champions of Sauvignon Blanc, both in the vineyard and in the winery, to ensure this variety shows its best expression of passionfruit, gooseberry and bell pepper as wine.
"A vast amount of research has been invested in this variety in New Zealand and making this icon wine has become a real science. The flavour profile usually seen at harvest in Gisborne for Sauvignon Blanc is much more tropical – guava and passionfruit – but we can definitely see the crisper lime and gooseberry characters at earlier brix, which reduces risk for winegrowers and offers a range of flavours and aromas to blend with in the winery.
Becoming part of the Sauvignon Blanc national machine is a clever move for Gisborne. With careful and concise vineyard management and winemaking, we will make some very good wines for sure," she says.
GroCo marketing director Andrew Vette says "the opportunity for Gisborne Sauvignon Blanc is clearly spearheaded by the incredible success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc".
"Global demand for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is near insatiable. The United States market, already over 30 percent share of New Zealand wine, has surged in growth by 24 percent in the last six months as it seems 'mainstream America' discovers Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc," says Vette.
"Increasing demand is great news for the industry but the supply side of the equation is limited – Marlborough is nearly completely planted out and vines there are nearing their 25-year life span which will see replanting taking areas out of production. So with increasing demand for a limited resource, prices are increasing and with this we are seeing increasing demand for the 'next nearest substitutes' – products that are very close to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc but at price points that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc can no longer hit," he says.
"Gisborne Sauvignon Blanc is not only considered one of the next nearest substitutes, but we also have the additional ability to produce a more tropical flavour profile which appeals to entry-level drinkers – our target market.
"The biggest benefit for the region of accessing global distribution through our Sauvignon Blanc is being able to introduce our other key Gisborne varietals. While we have long been lauded as a world-class wine region, we are yet to uncover a 'game changer' like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc," says Vette.
"While this is a matter of time and we are seeing great early success with Albariño and Chenin Blanc amongst an array of other varietals, we simply have to leverage every opportunity we get to take Gisborne wine to the world – Gisborne Sauvignon Blanc gives us this. From a production perspective the key to this product for Gisborne is being able to produce at a price point other areas struggle to meet, due to our strong yields, very low inputs, no irrigation and early harvest reducing risk of rain affecting quality or disease pressure pre-harvest."