The growth in New Zealand wine exports may take a blow this year as the industry comes to terms with a vintage which is now expected to 45% lower in volume that that of 2002.

In February New Zealand Winegrowers believed the total vintage would fall some 25%, but the trade body has now had to revise its expectations downwards for the size of the grape harvest.

"In February we advised we expected the vintage to total around 90,000 tonnes of grapes, a 25% reduction on the 2002 vintage," said Philip Gregan, chief executive officer of Winegrowers. "However, current reports from most areas, with the notable exceptions of Nelson and Central Otago, are that crops are significantly lower than originally expected. As a result we now expect the vintage to be about 45% down on Vintage 2002, at around 65,000 tonnes."

"It is clear that the Spring frosts in eastern North and South Island areas, along with cool temperatures during flowering in some regions, combined to lower yields much more than had been predicted" said Gregan. "This emphasises, once again, the agricultural base of our industry, and the adverse impact that weather events can have on production levels."

"A telling feature this year has been the widespread effects from the Spring frosts. All regions, except Central Otago and Nelson, appear to have lower yields caused by cold weather in Spring which has meant the combined effect is much greater than in the past vintages when frosts have been regionally specific" commented Mr Gregan.

Gregan said he expected some of the impact of the decline would be mitigated to some extent by the good level of stocks from vintage 2002.

"Vintage 2002 was a record year for varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, so there will be good stocks of these wines to satisfy markets. In terms of Sauvignon Blanc generally production will be down on last year, and it will be up to individual companies how they allocate that wine across markets."

On vintage quality, Gregan said it was still far too early to make any definitive comments but most reports were positive.

"At this stage the major concern of the industry has been the downturn in crop yields, not the quality of the vintage. Generally vintage reports are positive and we are confident consumers will find much to be excited about. However, as always the ultimate test will be in the tasting," he said.

Final details of the vintage size will be available in mid-June from New Zealand Winegrowers, while early wines from the vintage generally start appearing in June.