Hillersden Vintage Report: Harvest 2017

Hillersden Harvest. Vintage 2017 in New Zealand will go down in the record book as one of the most difficult vintages in our short winemaking history. 

The year started out beautifully but as harvest approached challenges increased.  Marlborough was particularly difficult due to an uneven flowering, cooler than normal temperatures and heavy rain events.  Our Upper Wairau Valley vineyards are usually quite different from the other sub-regions of Marlborough and also 2-3 weeks later.  The flowering of our Sauvignon Blanc occurred over a 3 week period which means that the individual grape berries also developed unevenly.  This pushed our harvest back a bit further yet.  On top of that the beautiful start to the year gave way to a February and March which simply did not bring the heat.

Cooler temps meant the harvest was even further behind.  Of itself, cooler temperature is not such an issue for us.  We love being a cooler site because that means flavour development at lower sugar and better acid than most.  And being lower in alcohol and higher in natural acidity means our wines are great with food.  But May weather waits for no grape in Marlborough.  The season can change like a switch being flicked.  The temperature drops and the rain comes as a harbinger of winter.  So having our growing window extended out into that period wasn’t an appealing concept!

April 5, ‘Debbie Downpour’. Warning as Cyclone Debbie deluge hits Marlborough

We made some wise viticultural decisions early in the year which saved our vintage.  Our low cropping and careful canopy management brought that ripening window back into an acceptable zone.  Instead of being pushed out into the wintry weather of May we managed to ripen and harvest our best fruit before the worst of the weather hit.  By shortening that growing window we picked some fantastic Sauvignon Blanc for our sparkling and for our still wine.  We also decided to pick a large percentage of our Pinot Noir including the block destined for Rosé.  The Pinot Gris looked very good as well so it came in just before the weather hit.

Hillersden Harvest 2017 Cyclone Cook Floods Wairau River
Cyclone Cook floods the Wairau River

Cyclone Debbie and Cyclone Cook presented serious challenges to both maturity and grape quality. Debbie hit Marlborough hard with some areas receiving more than 100mL of rain in a 24 hour period.  Our rain gauges measured just above 20mL.  It’s still considerable but we felt very fortunate comparatively.  Being on an old riverbed our soils are mostly free-draining, so much so that we saw minimal effect on fruit quality from Debbie.  There was very little berry splitting and after another day of cold, humid weather we were back on track.  At this stage of harvest it seemed like everything wanted to eat our grapes; fungus, birds, our vineyard crew and even me as I assessed maturity.  Thankfully the cold nights helped us fight off botrytis.

April 14, ‘Cook’. Heavy rain forces road closures, stop bank monitoring in Marlborough

After a few days of brilliant weather Cook began to threaten us with more rain.  We harvested the remainder of the Pinot Noir and some more Sauvignon Blanc prior to Cook’s arrival.  Considering the remaining blocks were still behind enough, we decided that they could weather the storm, so we let them hang. Cook hit us hard.  We measured 150mL of rainfall in 3 days. Even with our careful viticulture this caused berry splitting and damage as the grapes swelled up.  It took a full week after the storm to return to normal size.  During that time we went to battle against botrytis and ended up dropping damaged and at risk fruit.  We did some further crop thinning as botrytis started to set in.  At the end of vintage the team was tired, the gear was muddy, yields were low and for some batches of Sauvignon Blanc, quality was uncertain.

I know it might sound trite, but every now and again I think it is good to have a vintage as challenging as this.  It reminds us that we are not in charge; we need to always be vigilant in the way we unlock the potential of our vineyards.  It makes it hard for bulk producers and better for those like us, who put serious care into their vines.  Had we gotten a little greedy and tried to crop higher, I think we would have ended up with a pretty bad vintage.

As it stands we have some excellent wines in the winery now. The Rosé is looking smashing and the Sparkling Sauvignon smells downright beautiful and look forward to bottling these next month.  The acids across the board are brilliant and bright, just as we like them.  The Pinot Noir will be lower in alcohol and is showing concentrated raspberry fruit – only time will tell but it looks good so far.  The Sauvignon Blanc has really surprised us with some intense grapefruit, yellow fruit, citrus and texture.  A bit more time to develop on light lees and the final blend should be a cracker.  We even have several batches of barrel fermented, high solids Sauvignon Blanc that are among the best I have ever tasted.

So, despite all the vintage challenges, the 2017 wines promise to be immensely enjoyable and I can hardly wait to get them out for everyone to try.  When you do taste them, I hope you can sense all the work, struggle and passion of this year.  And I hope you can taste the joy that even in such a challenging year some gems will shine!