Marlborough: boom, bust, and boom again

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Boom and bust. Then boom again. That has been the recent story of Marlborough. The commercial success of Marlborough Sauvignon led to a massive increase in plantings throughout the late 1990s and noughties. The rate of growth was phenomenal. Then the boom turned to bust in 2008, with a large vintage of questionable quality, coupled with a slump in demand. It was an utter disaster.

This is a region where a significant slice of the action involves growers selling grapes to large producers. It is also a region where the demand is for the most recent vintage (everyone wants the most recent Sauvignon production). Thus overproduction plus softening demand hits hard. The result was a lot of bulk-shippped Kiwi Sauvignon hitting supermarket shelves under soft brands and private labels at rock bottom prices. For a while it was looking quite bleak.

But things changed. A steady place of rebuilding, some good New Zealand-style common sense and pragmatism, and we see the demand begin to come back, grape and bulk wine prices climbing, and a renewed sense of optimism. New markets have certainly helped. Now you can see new vineyards going into the ground, largely in the Waihopai (one of the valleys at the end of the Wairau) and the Awatere, where there’s still space (and there isn’t an awful lot of promising vineyard land left unplanted in the region).

There is, however, a potential cloud on the horizon. After the successful, large but rather compressed 2013 vintage, 2014 is currently on the vine a few weeks away from harvest. It’s a little early (by two weeks or so), and it’s potentially massive. There are Sauvignon vineyards with grapes on them, that if left, would yield 30-35 tons per hectare. This needs to be put into perspective: the average Sauvignon yield is usually 12 tons/hectare. It’s not unusual to have to drop crop (if the yield is too heavy the grapes won’t ripen properly), or to reduce yield by shoot thinning much earlier in the season. But the temptation is there for growers to take a bit more than normal, especially if the season is early and they think they might be able to get it ripe. Another problem is that there’s a shortage of contract workers at the moment to do this crop thinning. Some growers and companies have been using machine harvesters to crop thin, which sounds pretty drastic but actually works well: you just set the machine up right to take some of the grapes, apparently.

The restraint in yields requires a collective sense of responsibility. If there’s excess production, the growers will suffer badly next year through a softening of prices and demand. On an individual basis, though, if all your neighbours exercise restraint and you don’t, then you win (in a very selfish sense). 2014 looks like being a big, early, good quality vintage. Just how big, and whether demand can keep up with it, is the big question.

This is the big-picture story of the region. The picture behind the scenes is committed winegrowers working out their terroirs, and beginning to work with them. Here, we don’t need to be biased against some of the larger producers, because they can do this too. On my recent trip, I visited a range of producers, representing different ends of the spectrum. Te Whare Ra and Staete Landt represent the smaller family owned properties in the region. Seresin and Dog Point are medium sized but absolutely focused on quality, choosing not to play at the bottom end at all. Then we have Yealands and Villa Maria, larger companies, but with ranges that achieve good quality at the more commercial end and also some more serious wines which attempt to express site at the higher end.

Marlborough is New Zealand’s most important region, and it’s important that this 2014 harvest, which will soon begin, is a good one.

5 comments to Marlborough: boom, bust, and boom again

  • Are you sure with 30-35 tons per hectare? It looks terrible and can explain poor quality of some wines.

  • Chris Williams

    Interesting that you mention a hypothetical selfish grower who profits in the short term from the restraint of fellow growers who limit production.

    Seems like John Nash’s game theory can even be applied to Marlborough Sauvignon growers!

    Just a thought from Stellenbosch where we are in the heat of harvest.

  • Roger Kerrison

    In terms of over supply, the amount in the vineyard is really irrelevant this year, the bottle neck is the amount of tank space. Estimates are that there is an additional 5% of space available from 2013 when we also squeezed in a big harvest, so this is sustainable growth rate that will require no dumping of cheap bulk if the market demand stays where it is.

    If crops aren’t thinned now, grapes will be left on the vine and those will be vineyards that are over-cropped and badly managed. Therefore I can’t see the harvest (in tank) being massive, nor the quality being bad due to over-cropping. That’s not to say that Marlborough needs to keep in mind that 30% swings in production are not in its best interest to maintain consistent pricing.

  • Mike Trought

    Hi Jamie
    One of the unique characteristics of the Marlborough region is its relative youth, when compared to most wine growing regions. As a result we are learning as we go. While the vintage is likely to be above average, the difference with 2008 is that growers are now aware of the potential tonnage (and consequences) and many wine companies have been putting in place measures to moderate crops. This has been ongoing for a number of years. For example the yield prediction model that has been developed and used by the industry for several years has forwarned the industry as early as February 2013 that the 2014 harvest was likely to be above average. From our records, the 2013-14 season is the first to have had well above inflorescence initiation and flowering temperatures. The consequence of this on potential yield was emphasised at industry meetings in June and August. Likewise, research by Plant and Food researchers and funded largely by New Zealand Winegrowers on the potential of machine thinning has been ongoing for six years. While it has been predominantly on Sauvignon blanc it has evaluated its potential on Merlot, Pinot gris and Pinot noir. Contrary to our original concerns that machine thinning would increase disease, in practice the removal of trash from bunches appears to be reducing botrytis bunch rot – a non-chemical means of disease control.

    We are rapidly approaching harvest, which is earlier than average and about the same as 2006. However some slowing of ripening is occurring as a result of the above average cropping levels. While 12 T/ha Sauvignon blanc crops may be a district average, higher crops have regularly been recorded in the past, producing trophy winning wines from vineyards cropping in excess of 20 T/ha. Sauvignon blanc appears to be less sensitive to cropping level than some other varieties. Achieving optimum ripeness and a balance in the vegetative: fruit yield, sugar: acid and flavour components is more important than the absolute yield.

    Mike

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