Vintage Notes from Winemaker Helen Masters
Great seasons across the previous three years have meant that the vines were set up well for this year. We went into the 2015-16 growing season with excellent bud initiation, resulting in even bunch numbers and size, distributed well across the canes.
The old spectre of Jack Frost couldn’t help but rear his ugly head early on. Fortunately, whilst there was some isolated frost damage in Martinborough, the Terrace upon which Ata Rangi’s vineyards sit made a lucky escape.
A very dry climate typified the season. Temperatures were in a normal range for much of it, with overall growing degree days only just above the long term average at 1214. The key difference from an average year, however, was timing. Unlike a season where those GDDs may be spread out, much of it happened in February – which turned out to be the hottest we’ve experienced since 1998. This brought with it the wonderful advantage of early seed ripening, allowing us to pick at lower brix. It’s a result we’re really happy with – the wines are looking bright and fine, without the excessive alcohol which can result from an extended warm season.
Good weather extended into March and it seemed to be a balmy run of weather. In fact, it wasn’t the temperature being any different from a historical March, rather the absence of wind that we would often experience at this time of the year. The big upside was that with low rainfall, the vines remained in healthy condition through the final period without the withering, stressful effects of wind. Picking was quite spread out, the first small block picked on 8 March, similar to 2014 (2015 was slightly later). April was cool but dry, a typical pattern, allowing good hang time and a thoroughly orderly picking schedule.
Across the board, we’ve seen consistency in berry size, with less shatter in the bunches and a more uniform bunch architecture than we’d find in cooler years. All round, an excellent harvest and we’re quietly thrilled by what we’re seeing in the wines already.
Low bunch numbers and a typical, unsettled Martinborough spring resulted in low yields. The summer months of November, December and January were very dry (in fact the driest season since the summer of 1997/1998), but fortunately not overly hot.
The lower crop turned out to be a real blessing as the leaf canopies only just coped with the stress of the drought.
Timely showers in late January and early February re-invigorated the canopy, allowing energy for fruit ripening. Very early seed and flavour ripeness provided the ability to pick at lower brix than in many other years (Pinot Noir, for example, was harvested at a perfect 22-23 brix). Nice fresh acidity, bright fruit characters and good tannin/phenolic ripeness across all varieties provided great stuff to work with in the winery.
The early signs from the young wines indicate similarities to the excellent 2013 vintage.
It's certainly true in this business that no matter how long you're in it, you'll never have two growing seasons the same. Martinborough 2014 was a case in point, with bud-burst occurring a full three weeks earlier than 'usual'. With the warm and damp December, canopy growth was strong.
It looked as though we might have the whole crop into the winery almost a month earlier than usual, which at the time made us a little nervous. We heard similar reports around the FXII family.
There's no particular upside in things happening early or quickly in this game. Instead, nature taking its time is just fine, particularly in the key grape-growth and ripening period. We're looking for as much hang-time as possible, enabling us to pick the fruit at peak physiological ripeness for best expression in the resulting wines.
Thankfully we didn't get the real mid-summer heat on top of the very early start. Instead we saw a much cooler back-end to the summer - very few days over 26 degrees, with cool nights through both January and even February.
Some folks may have felt cheated out of their summer holidays, but we were very happy to see the resulting slow-down and fruit ripeness get back into step with tannin development.
In early March, the whole country was preoccupied with Cyclone Lusi. The growing season had slowed, returning to about three weeks early overall, as it had started out. We were mentally and physically prepared which meant we could, and did, make the call to pick early as a hedge to the threat of inclement weather. As a result, 2014 was the first ever vintage where all our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was in before April Fool's Day.
Lusi, as we know, turned out to be fizzer for much of the country and autumn settled into its regular dry pattern. At that point, one might have wondered whether we'd jumped the gun. As it turned out, our decisions were bang on. Firstly, we've seen excellent fruit ripeness, especially considering the cooler summer. The pinot is showing bright fruit expression with very fine tannins, while the whites have gorgeous aromatics and plushness of fruit. Secondly, when the heavens opened in the second half of April – normally the peak weeks of picking – 90% of the crop was already safely in the winery. There's no doubt that rain of that volume and duration would have had a massive impact on quality if our season hadn't been a few weeks early. It's always a gamble and a balancing act, second guessing the weather, and is not for the faint hearted!
2013 was warmer in comparison to the year prior, with reasonable yields after the mild, settled spring flowering. December was dry and warm, but January cooled off, slowing ripening. A well-timed dump of rain arrived mid-February to ease the drought. Good March weather ensured full seed and tannin ripeness, but the real clincher was the cold, crisp, clear April – fruit came into the winery in perfect condition with no sign of shrivelling or disease.
The 2013 whites are showing very classic fruit expression and excellent phenolic ripeness, while the reds resting in barrel are vivid and deeply coloured with a concentrated, beautifully ripe tannin structure.
A season like no other. The cool spring resulted in a lower than average fruit set and vines 1 to 2 weeks behind in growth, very similar to 2010. The marked difference between 2012 and 2010 was the lower sunshine hours which meant that picking was more like 2 to 3 weeks later than normal. Morale was low in February where the Growing Degree Days (GDD) were as low as 164 compared to more typical figures of 200 – 270. Soil moisture levels were high due to regular rain occurrences - suffice to say we put in a lot of hard work expecting pretty average wine quality.
This may start to read like a marketing blurb but in actual fact April pulled one out of the bag, so to speak. Not hot days, but with lots of sunshine and cool nights flavour began to accumulate and the tannins and phenolics shifted from hard and edgy to being much, much rounder. Slowly but surely, the brix levels (how we measure sugar) began to increase. Picking started on the 2nd of April with Chardonnay and a few days later followed by the first of the Dijon Pinot Noir. Flavours were vivid with a real core of acid and only slightly lower sugar, resulting in wines with an alcohol around 13%. Fruit continued to come in and surprise – green characters were expected but they just weren’t there. The last of the Pinot Noir came in on the 4th of May and by this time we knew we had some very elegant, interesting, flavoursome wines in barrel, with bright, beautifully aromatic whites.
It had been decided early on that this was not a year to make our much loved Celebre (blend of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet) so we used most of this fruit to make a very serious Rose. We could not resist the urge to see what a little Syrah would be like from this cooler year. One tonne was picked from the warmest blocks and it's looking sensational - not at all like what I expected. 2012 is a harvest that I have been glad to witness – it seals for me the fact that Martinborough is an excellent place to produce fine wine.
Bud burst started wonderfully with a warmer than average September, which continued on through the vital months of November and December when the vines were flowering. This made for a much more relaxed spring, with wind machines (frost fighting) barely used. Bunch set was very good, too good, so crop was taken back to a level that would ensure even, complete ripeness. January gave us some amazing summer days, tempered by cool nights. The warm temps and high sunlight hours cemented tannin ripeness in seeds and skins. March and April cooled off a little and brought some welcome rain showers that were much needed by the dry soils. The 2011 wines look to be classics - ripe tannins, vibrant acids and remarkably balanced.
The season got off to a very slow start with cool temperatures through October and November. Flowering was a good 2-3 weeks late and rather patchy as the variable yields at harvest demonstrate. January was average with respect to rainfall and temperature, and overall we started the key ripening period of March-April still a good two weeks behind. Although a little nervous by the end of February, conditions quickly turned. From mid-March on we experienced idyllic summer weather, with warm sunny days and cool nights that went on right through to the end of May. Harvest started two weeks later than normal, the late, dry Indian summer meaning fruit came in great condition. The white wines of this vintage are particularly exciting.
The memorable feature of 2009 was the warm January. Prior to that we'd had a lovely “average’ spring and start to the summer. March and April brought a cool change with cool nights and beautiful clear days that sat around 22-24C. A stunning vintage across all varieties.
NOTE: It will be interesting to compare 2009 and 2010 seasons into the future. They had quite different weather patterns, with 09 warm early (Jan) and cool later (Apr/May) , while 2010 was almost the exact opposite.
This was a remarkable season from start to finish. Weather couldn't have been better; from the start of spring flowering, right through the summer and into harvest. Fruit was in beautiful condition with lush flavours and ripe tannins resulting in a range of excellent wines. Altogether, 2008 was a huge lift for our spirits after the tiny crops of 2007.
Late frosts and a cold, wet December resulted in a very low fruit set of around 0.5 T/acre - even lower than 2003. The Pinot Noir harvest was only one-third the size of the 2006 intake. January started off with cooler then average weather but by February things were well on track for a perfect season – just very little fruit to ripen! Fine average temperatures rolled on through right to the end of May, resulting in healthy vines, clean fruit and no disease pressure at all. The patchy fruit set meant there was some shrivel in the PInot, which means more tannin and quite a muscular structure - so great ageing potential. Drink the 2006 before the 2007.
A very welcome, average size crop thanks to the lack of damaging frosts and favourable spring conditions. Lovely harvest conditions followed an appropriately warm January and February, with very little wind. There was a heat spike for a week in January, but generally days were warm, rather than hot, and nights were cool, creating excellent and very pure, vibrant fruit rather than the more savoury “tannin and power” characteristics of 2005. More classic varietal character coming through in all the wines, but especially the beautifully balanced pinots.The good conditions resulted in a better than expected yield. Fruit was in excellent conditionwith very little shrivel, a nice change from the various challenges of the previous four seasons.
Cold Nov/Dec again meant poor flowering and very low yields, a real blow coming so soon after the spring frosts which had also cut the 2003 harvest right back. In late Jan/early Feb it was very hot and dry. Rain arrived in March, bringing patchy weather pre vintage, sending the team for extra leaf plucking to open up the canopies. Weather was reasonably settled during April and the main part of harvest. Very small bunches and berries were a feature; wine are quiet dense as a result. Pinot Noir 2005 is best decanted an hour or so before serving. It is still quite tight, very textured wine, with huge palate length. Savoury hints come through, and a brambly, almost peppery, spicy edge adds complexity. Tannin is still dense, gruff even, but softens with time in the glass. Flavours and aromas are heady and fragrant, with plums and spice dominating. Don’t be in a hurry to drink this vintage.
Rain in November was followed by an excellent warm, dry period through Dec/Jan. Fruit was bountiful, and we crop-thinned extensively. Heavy rain hit in the last week of January, and we were reminded how good it is to be on stony ground. Although bridges at the river entrances to Martinborough were closed due to flooding, up on our slightly higher, free-draining ground, the ground water vanished as fast as it could puddle. February was generally pretty dismal weather wise with only intermittent patches of sunshine and drying breezes. Thankfully autumn was settled and warm, and the crop had the chance to dry out before harvest. Ultimately, Pinot Noir 2004 reached good sugar levels and ripeness. The wine is lighter, with less colour and tannin than hotter, drier years like 2003.
Yields were slashed in half due to severe, recurring spring frosts and poor weather at flowering. Hardest hit blocks failed to crop at all. The joys of peasant famring! The average yield was less than 1 T/acre. Plenty of lovely warm days through the summer, but overall it was variable with some very cold temperatures in February. Harvest was thankfully very settled and dry, though cool. The spring frosts meant that fruit set timing (and therefore ripeness) was all over the place – it was definitely a year for hand-picking fruit. Leaf canopies were notable for their openness and scrappiness, a hangover from the frosts and wind. Quite a Burgundian season (warm summer, cool autumn) and one with very exciting potential. Another wine which will benefit hugely from decanting.
Wet and wetter through the growing season with triffid-like canopies which refused to stop growing! The vineyard team made many extra passes to leaf-pluck and top the growth, important for exposing the fruiting zone to sunlight and drying winds. The vintage was saved by Martinborough’s amazingly free-draining gravels, the three weeks of fine, settled March weather and the dry spell throughout the April harvest. Crop-thinning, a rare event in Martinborough, was employed in some blocks to ensure full ripeness. An elegant, opulent, silky textured wine with gorgeous flavours and aromas now. Spend time just inhaling this one!
Despite a generally cold spring in 2000 which included frosts (and even hail in November) December was warm - and flowering was the best we'd then experienced. Fruit set well and the vines bore a crop to rival that of 1996.The cool summer followed by a warm autumn produced ripe grapes with bright flavours, good levels of natural acidity and low pH's. A fine vintage following the out-standing 2000 vintage.
Generally summer temperatures were on the cool side, but autumn was warm and dry, ideal for ripening. With fewer of the cool and windy episodes we typically experience in spring and over flowering, crops were the best since 1996, at around 2 tonnes per acre. Grapes were fully ripe with excellent levels of natural acidity and low pH's, a classic cool-climate vintage after the two warm-hot vintages 1998 and 1999. The vintage 2000 wines in general are tightly focused with beautiful varietal expression and balance. One of our very best vintages of Pinot Noir. Probably long gone by now, but well cellared in cool temps this will still be stunning wine.