Published on March 25th, 2012 | by ladyparker6
A Prophylactic Report: The Outlook for Marlborough’s Vintage 2012
It’s bordering on reading like a Shakespearean tragedy. Three enormously punishing and public years of financial privation alongside increased Government regulation and taxation has afflicted New Zealand’s wine industry. To really lay a boot in, the weather gods have wrecked havoc with unpredictable, outlandish and unsympathetic meteorology. Yes, the entirety of the wine industry has assuredly suffered in recent times, and as we wait for the tardy 2012 vintage to truly begin in New Zealand’s wine heartland it is difficult not to consider what this all may mean for the industry’s future.
Is it all bad? Well the way the recent Markham’s Business Confidence Survey has been reported you would assume so. Although the survey creators stated they thought there was general optimism about the industry due to chiefly, distribution opportunities in China, there were some glaringly strange conjectures posing as official findings, which naturally seeped into the mainstream media.
Since being released last Wednesday, the press have jumped on the rather generic results enabling a cornucopia of shock headlines to evolve like Chinese whispers. It is an annual survey, which this year had a 10% response rate. That in itself should sound alarm bells as to its factuality. The survey presented a rather bleak picture, particularly about the quality of this year’s vintage for white varieties in Marlborough (75% of Marlborough survey respondents said white variety quality would be worse than last year, while there was actually a sentiment that red variety quality would be the same or better than last year).
This is a quizzical finding– how can the quality of the harvest be assessed at that point in time, the survey being conducted weeks ago when because of the late nature of the vintage, grapes in Marlborough were likely just going through veraison? Surely the state of the vintage can only be determined until after the harvest has occurred, when grapes have come in, been pressed and the first of those heady fermentation aromas start permeating in the winery?
This has been one source of a whole raft of negative press going down on the state of the industry. Regrettably, press releases by various entities have been taken as gospel, which is exactly what the industry doesn’t need, alongside an egregiously unjustified national tonnage figure that has been thrown around. There is a critical need to look beyond this ostensibly destructive material and put things in perspective. For all we know the vintage is going to be of exceptional quality, and will actually do the industry some good. But the correct and positive message must get through.
I’ve spent a good deal of time looking in the vineyards of Marlborough this year, talking to a wide variety of prominent people in the industry and what is intelligible is that yields, particularly in Marlborough, are going to be devastatingly low. Again this is contrary to what is being reported. Some of those in the Marlborough industry predicted a small vintage back in December, just as flowering was occurring and Mother Nature was dealing the region a nasty, gelid hand. The search for fruit to make up the steadily annual rising demand for New Zealand wine (again, a little understood fact) was on from this point. I can admit that some still won’t believe it until the grape bins start coming through the winery door and that frightful realisation hits home (this is probably accurately reflected in the survey results with 20% of Marlborough respondents saying they’re expecting bigger volumes than 2011). Some producers have been artful enough to scope out the few uncommitted blocks and secure them, while some continue to search.
You may have heard figures that the Marlborough harvest may be 20% down on 2011 levels. This would be favourable and just what the industry needs! It would tighten up on what excess wine is available on the market, filtering out those opportunistic multiple own-label brands and those strange, alien Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc labels lining international wine shelves. It would create a level of urgency amongst wholesalers to snap up 2011 stock. It would restore some much needed balance into the equation: push the grape price up a little for those hectored, stressed growers and perhaps augment the modest retail prices: an excellent scenario.
The increasingly conspicuous reality is that yields are going to be much lower than the reported and the press-released. While some in the Marlborough wine industry are contemplating a 20% reduction from 2011’s tonnage (the national figure was 324,591 metric tons), other experienced hands in the industry have exclaimed they think the Marlborough crop is 60% of last year, and some even think the vintage will be halved. The general consensus lies somewhere within this range – but it is ludicrous to brandish concrete figures in front of those printing and distributing the news. No one can tell what the quantity will actually be until the trucks start rolling in.
It is undeniable that numerous producers have missed out on securing their fruit requirements and some of the larger players are scrambling. This means the ideal consequences of a small harvest will still occur but there will be increased financial pressure and stress upon producers attempting to meet contractual commitments and optimum product : production cost ratios, while growers will face a grim erosion of earnings.
This is not public knowledge partly due to the Markham’s survey and other misconceived articles and partly due to patent conservatism meaning the correct (but daunting) message fails to be voiced. The effect that this is having on the industry is not hard to work out. International markets, having being reassured by the gospel-esque propagation that there will be plenty of wine around, are seeking price reductions for this year’s product. It simply cannot be done and it’s rubbing salt into an already festering wound that is trying to heal. It means perpetual frustration for the producers who incessantly must explain that their own margins are dismal for a whole host of reasons not limited to production costs, the strong dollar and excise tax. Those producers who are tenacious and stable enough to hold out will be pleasantly rewarded when it is realised there is not enough wine candy to go around. However at present all producers have to contend with the ubiquitous misconception that there will always be enough of New Zealand’s liquid gold.
It is not just Marlborough that will face low yields either. Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Martinborough look to have a small vintage too thanks to the ghastly cool spring and summer weather which resulted in that poor flowering catalyst.
A final word on quality of the vintage: all those in the industry I’ve spoken to surmise that this year’s intake in Marlborough could be of tremendous quality. Reported flavour profiles in the vineyard are intense, with lots of retrospective flavour especially in the Sauvignon Blanc. Bunches are looser so there is much less disease threat, but the weather over the next few weeks is going to really matter – those flavours need to develop unencumbered by harsh elements to be delivered in prime condition to the receival bins.
Ultimately the inessential speculation needs to cease, and the media need access to accurate, positive information – of course not to any propagandistic extent but by inquiring a little more thoughtfully and intuitively the industry would be given a well-earned break. So listen up: Marlborough’s 2012 harvest volume is going to be vastly down on last year and the rest of the country moderately down. Expect to see less wine on the shelves and just watch the obscure bargain bin label vanish.