New Zealand Winegrowers expects the 2003 grape harvest to be smaller than the record 2002 vintage, but still to be the 2nd largest ever for the grape and wine industry.

Commenting on the harvest prospects Philip Gregan, chief executive officer of Winegrowers said: "At this stage we anticipate a vintage of around 90,000 tonnes of grapes, a reduction of 25% on the 2002 vintage. However, assessment of the crop load has been particularly difficult this year given the variable yields in many regions, and as a result this figure may change."

Vintage 2003 will be harvested from a producing grape area of 15,500 hectares, up 1,700 hectares on 2002. However, despite the larger producing area, inclement Spring weather has reduced the total crop. According to Gregan: "Spring frosts in eastern North and South Island areas, along with cool temperatures during flowering in some regions, have combined to lower yields below normally expected levels."

In terms of the vintage expectation for individual regions and varieties Mr Gregan said the outlook is complex. "While nationally we expect the harvest to be smaller than 2002, in some areas, notably Nelson and Central Otago we anticipate production will be above last year's levels. In terms of varieties we expect the biggest impact to be on Chardonnay, while production of Sauvignon Blanc and red varieties will be significantly less affected."

Gregan stressed that the weather for the next three months will be critical in determining the success of the vintage. "So far the signs for a high quality vintage are positive, but further warm, dry weather is necessary over coming months."

Gregan said the vintage had already commenced in Gisborne, and will continue in southern areas through to the end of May. Final details of the vintage will be available in mid-June.