A record vintage in New Zealand may hold the key to unlocking the international market, which has been frustrated by the country's small harvests in recent years.

The 2002 New Zealand grape vintage is in line with expectations, said New Zealand Winegrowers this week as it released the results of its annual Vintage Survey.
After two small harvests in 2001 and 2000, New Zealand Winegrowers estimates grape growers and winemakers harvested nearly 120,000 tonnes of grapes in 2002, up 47,700 tonnes or 67% on 2001 and 38,600 or 48% on 2000. The increase in production is due to a return to normal yield levels and an increase in the producing area of just over 10%. The harvest of 118,700 tonnes is a record for the industry, surpassing the previous level of 80,100 tonnes set in vintage 2000.

Commenting on the harvest, New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan said: "Overall, vintage 2002 reflects two key aspects of the growing season. First, weather conditions during flowering were generally favourable, leading to a return to normal yield levels, after the very depressed crops of the past two years.

"Then, the harvest benefited from the warm, dry autumn prevailing in most regions in the critical ripening period from February through to May. Combined with the increased producing area this has produced a record grape crop of generally very good quality," said Gregan.

"The increase in overall production was spread across all grape varieties"
The average yield for the vintage is estimated to be 9.0 tonnes per hectare, compared with the record low of 6.1 tonnes per hectare in 2001. "The national average yield is back to expected levels. This is very welcome after the frustrations the industry has experienced over the past two years with unsustainably low yields and small crops" said Gregan.

Gregan said the increased crop will support export growth over the next year - currently exports are just over 22m litres per annum, valued at NZ$240m. "Since Vintage 2000 our international sales performance has been hampered by small crops. This year, rather than simply allocating wine to customers, we can move towards meeting market needs. Wine exports will continue to grow in volume and value, but a decrease in the returns per litre may result from the strengthening of the New Zealand dollar."

Varietal Production
The increase in overall production was spread across all grape varieties. Record crops have been harvested for most varieties, including key export styles such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The dominant varieties from the harvest are Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay which together account for just over 60% of the total crop.

The production changes compared with 2001 for the major grape varieties are as follows:
  2001  2002  Change  % Change
Sauvignon Blanc  20,826  36,742  15,916  + 76%
Chardonnay  17,067  33,883  16,816  + 99%
Pinot Noir  8,015  10,402  2,387  + 30%
Merlot  2,573  6,502  3,930  + 153%
Cabernet Sauvignon  2,782  4,375  1,593  + 57%
Riesling  4,377  5,038  660  + 15%
Semillon  1,887  3,053  1,166  + 62%
Pinot Gris  747  1,214  467  + 62%
Gewurztraminer  460  990  531  + 115%

"The greatly increased supplies of our major varieties should enable wineries to considerably expand sales over the next year. We expect New Zealand's domestic market share to start recovering after dropping in the recent past," commented Gregan.

Regional Production
Most of New Zealand's wine regions experienced significantly larger harvests in 2002. Following their small harvests in 2001, northern regions experienced the greatest percentage increases in production, but Marlborough recorded the largest production increase by volume.

Marlborough was again the largest producing region in 2002, comprising 47% of the vintage, while together with Hawkes Bay and Gisborne the three largest regions represented 91.5% of the harvest. The largest producing of the smaller regions in 2002 was the Wellington/Wairarapa region, replacing Nelson who held the honour in 2001.

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"From a winery and grape grower perspective, Vintage 2002 will be remembered for the long, dry autumn that prevailed in many areas. As has occurred a number of times in recent years, the 'Indian summer' provided excellent ripening conditions, reduced disease pressure and encouraged wineries to hang grapes on the vine for as long as possible to ensure full ripeness. As a result, nationally at harvest time the grape crop was in very good to excellent condition," said Gregan.

The first of the Vintage 2002 wines are being released now. Initial releases are generally of varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris, followed later by Chardonnay. Few of the reds such as Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon will be sold in the next calendar year; they will start being available to consumers some time towards the middle of 2003.

Gregan noted, however, that a final determination of the quality of the vintage will develop over the next year to 18 months. "At this stage it is far too early to make definitive statements, but winemakers are generally bullish about quality, although of course there is always regional, varietal and winemaking variation."