Winemakers love a long, reliable growing season. It makes their lives easier, the wines more consistent and their employers and the bank managers, much happier. But cool climate winemaking is rarely reliable. It’s not often grapes comes off the field without a hitch. Frost risk, for example, looms large. Frost has been known to destroy early buds or worse, decimate entire vineyards (i.e. 2004 Central Otago). Too much rain brings disease like downy mildew and Botrytis blight. Too much heat can scorch, stew or ripen the grapes ahead of schedule driving grape sugars (and potential alcohol levels) through the roof. While sugar levels may be high, the phenolic backbone of grape – the skins, seeds – may not have fully ripened in tandem with the sugars, producing a highly tannic or acidic grape. And the list goes on and on….
According to Dom Maxwell, head winemaker at Greystone, it’s the uneven growing seasons, the rot, the bot, the pests, the under and over-ripe grapes that really test a winemaker’s mettle. His job is to look at everything in play and orchestrate the big finish for each of the varietals and sites being harvested. That can mean blending vineyards and grapes that they never intended to blend. Or foregoing a reserve or single vineyard premium release because the quality just isn’t there. It’s generally the winemaker who wears the success or failure of a vintage and those 10 – 12 weeks of harvest are at once a spirited, suspenseful, stressful, exhausting culmination of the vineyard cycle. “The first week of harvest is fun, and we laugh at each other’s jokes and it’s a good time,” said Allison, one of the cellar hands at Greystone. “The last week, everyone’s tired and grumpy. It’s good you’re here now.”
At Greystone, Vintage 2016 started the week before I arrived (March 26) and continues until mid-May when sweet, botrycized grapes come off the field. So my experience, to be clear, is very much a partial view. But the opportunity to fly to the other side of the planet and experience 10 days of vintage was a dream come true and I learned a ton!
There’s also no way I can do justice to the complexities of the vineyard and the winemaking process during vintage. The winery is a hive of activity and I was just trying to be useful, wrap my head around the process and not get in the way. My final qualification: I tried to take phone notes (not easy given sticky fingers are a by-product of grapes) as Dom, Brad, Gavin waxed poetic about the art, science and ideology of Greystone winemaking, so any murky observations are mine and mine alone.
So what did I learn? Read on……