Having significantly expanded its vineyard area to meet rising export demand, New Zealand has recorded a record harvest for 2006, and one which is also reported to be of excellent quality. Ben Cooper reports.

The 2006 New Zealand wine harvest is not only reported to be of high quality but has also set a new record in volume terms, thanks to an increase in the vineyard area. New Zealand Winegrowers reported that the 2006 grape harvest reached 185,000 tonnes, up 30% on last year which had been adversely affected by cooler weather in the flowering period.

The figures come from the New Zealand Winegrowers 2006 Vintage Survey which covers 66% of the country's wine producers, but an estimated 98.7% the total production. The 2006 harvest was some 11% up on the country's previous record harvest of 166,000 tonnes set in 2004, with the rise attributed to an 18% increase in productive vineyard area between 2004 and 2006.

Not only was the vintage one of record volume but, according to New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan, one of high quality. Gregan also said the harvest was in line with expectations.

"This is good news for the New Zealand wine industry as we have unfulfilled demand for our premium wine in most export markets," Gregan said. "Grape growers and wine makers are pleased with the vintage. The size and quality of the harvest is due to good summer and autumn weather which meant grapes were picked when they were at their best."

Warm weather patterns meant most regions saw higher volumes in comparison with 2005, according to the New Zealand Winegrowers survey. Marlborough, by some way New Zealand's largest wine region accounting for around 62% of production, saw volumes increase by 40% from 81,034 tonnes in 2005 to 113,436 tonnes in 2006. The Marlborough harvest was also 23% up on 2004.

Renowned New Zealand winemaker Kim Crawford said the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc of 2006 will be the best yet. "The Sauvignon Blanc tanks are as a whole as good as we have done from Marlborough," said Crawford. "There is good fruit weight, ripeness and flavour at reasonably low alcohol so expect a very good quality wine from here."

Meanwhile, other white varieties from Malborough are also showing great promise, while 2006 may prove to be something of a breakthrough year for Marlborough Pinot Noir. "The aromatic varieties are again very strong. Riesling and Pinot Gris look very good at present although they are still in infancy. I think this year we have confirmed Marlborough's ability to produce world class Pinot Noir, both at the top price points but more importantly at the affordable end of the scale."

Hawke's Bay, the country's second largest region, has seen an 18% volume rise from last year to 33,287 tonnes, which is also 9% up on 2004. The third biggest region Gisborne, however, saw a decrease of 20% from 2005 to 18,049 tonnes. Together, these three largest regions account for 90% of the total harvest.

Interestingly, the combined production of the smaller regions reached 18,000 tonnes, more than twice the production in these areas in 2005 and well ahead of the total in 2004 of 13,700 tonnes.

In varietal terms, Sauvignon Blanc is by some way the most important grape variety for New Zealand, and the one on which the country' international success has largely been founded. In overall volume terms, the Sauvignon Blanc harvest was reported to be 53% up on 2005, at 96,686 tonnes, which was also 43% ahead of 2004. However, volumes of Chardonnay were down by 9% from 2005 at 26,944 tonnes, which also represents a fall of 24% from 2004. The Riesling harvest rose by 41% over last year to 6,745 tonnes.

Volumes of New Zealand's most popular red varietal - and its second largest export - Pinot Noir have risen by 51% from 2005 to 22,062 tonnes, which was 10% up on 2004. New Zealand has seen its Merlot harvest rise by 22% from last year to 11,206 tonnes, while Cabernet Sauvignon volumes fell by 12% to 2,659 tonnes.

As the increasing vineyard area bears witness, New Zealand is looking to step up production in order to keep up with demand, so the record harvest will be widely welcomed. However, production will have to be increased further in order to keep pace with rising exports and develop new markets.
"Despite the increased harvest, demand continues to outstrip supply for quality New Zealand wine in our key markets such as the USA, UK and Australia," Gregan said. "Increased wine volumes are however also needed to grow sales in new countries such as Ireland where sales are up 55% this year."

At present, around 55% of New Zealand's production is exported but the record 2006 vintage will help lift exports from around 60m litres in 2006 to an estimated 75m litres in 2007.