V20: The Report – Hawke’s Bay

V20: The Report – Hawke’s Bay

The latest vintage update from Sacred Hill Vineyards by Rebecca Gibb MW

While 2020 may feel like a ‘let’s start over’ kind of year, the Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay grape harvest gives all of us a little something to be optimistic about – talk is running hot about the potential of the V20 harvest.

For many of us, 2020 has not turned out quite as we had planned and that’s true of the New Zealand wine harvest. The conditions leading up to harvest might have been sublime but as the grapes entered their final ripening weeks, growers were faced with the very real possibility that they might have to walk away from their perfectly healthy bunches. At the crucial moment in the season, borders were closed, strict quarantine rules were imposed on those visiting or returning to New Zealand, and wine producers wondered if 2020 would go down as the vintage that wasn’t. That’s because in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand took the unprecedented step of enforcing a nationwide lockdown at 11.59pm on 25 March, just days after the country’s most important wine region, Marlborough, started harvesting its signature grape variety, Sauvignon Blanc.

At the eleventh hour, the New Zealand government categorised wine operations as essential businesses, allowing the harvest to take place but with strict rules imposed, it was a vintage that will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Kate Franklin’s first vintage in charge at Sacred Hill’s Hawke’s Bay winery will be one to remember. Having joined Sacred Hill four years ago after studying winemaking at New Zealand’s leading wine school, Lincoln University, and working vintages in Western Australia and Sonoma, she was wondering if her main duty during the 2020 harvest would be locking up the cellar and completing her barrel furniture projects at home instead of organising the pump-over programme.

When the national lockdown was announced, the Chardonnay had long been in the cellar after a warm February brought the grapes to full maturity.

The Riflemans vineyard, Hawke’s Bay’s oldest Chardonnay vineyard planted on its own roots, experienced its earliest harvest on record. “We were in the vineyards tasting the berries and thinking ‘Hmmmm, this is getting ripe but it’s only February’ but it was ready so on 26 February we started picking
the Chardonnay – that’s two weeks earlier than normal.”

The vines had been on track for an early finish from the start of the season. It was slightly warmer than the long-term average but cooler than the past three vintages. With just 72mm of rain from January through April, representing less than a quarter of the average rainfall, drought spread across the North Island including Hawke’s Bay with locals talking of the ‘big dry’. “My family are sheep and beef farmers and the lack of rainfall has
been terrible for them,” says Franklin.

However, rain in December and access to irrigation ensured canopies remained healthy and vines kept on ripening with almost no disease pressure. “Across the board it is the cleanest fruit I have ever seen coming into the winery. If there had been a bit of rot it would have added a layer of difficulty, which would have made this strange harvest much more stressful. Looking back it all seems like a weird dream!”

The escalation of New Zealand’s response to the COVID pandemic and several days of uncertainty over the possible shutting of the winery meant some wineries picked blocks in the belief that it was better to harvest something rather than nothing at all but the team held out and it wasn’t until mid-April that the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon was picked.

“The Cabernet Sauvignon is the best I have seen in a long time: we had no rain pressure so we could leave it out to ripen fully. The colour is incredible and the tannins were very ripe so we pulled back on working the tanks a little earlier because we had the intensity of colour and the tannin.”

Syrah, perhaps Hawke’s Bay’s most distinctive style, offers a sense of plushness this year. The characterful pepper notes of this variety in a cool climate are still in evidence but they are subtle with rich fruit and chocolate flavours playing the lead role, says Franklin.

It was the vintage that almost wasn’t and with the wines safely slumbering in their barrels, Franklin now has time to return to her own barrel project: platters are next on her do-it-yourself with oak staves list.