In certain parts of this district, where a good aspect and well-sheltered spots are available, the cultivation of the vine may be undertaken, butjudgment must be exercised in the selection of varieties to be planted, and cultivation and pruning methods must be adopted that meet the requirements of the colder vine-growing regions.
After a Lincoln College seminar in 1976, Tom McDonald, the managing director of McWilliam’s Wines in Hawke’s Bay, asked Ann Pinckney her plans when she graduated with her Master’s degree in horticultural science. She replied: ‘Grow grapes in Central Otago.’ The sceptical Scot’s reply was unequivocal: ‘You’ll never grow grapes down there, lassie!’ McDonald’s response captures a common attitude among members of the established industry of the time who were almost all growing their grapes in the North Island. They made their judgements on the basis of their experience in regions like Auckland, the Waikato, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay where variability in temperatures is less than in regions with a more continental climate such as Central Otago.
Bob Knappstein, the highly respected McWilliam’s viticulturist, responded similarly when he visited Central Otago in 1972:
Chard Farm in the Kawarau Gorge. Rob Suisted/ www.naturespic.com
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On the day of the visit, 16 December, Riesling-Sylvaner were still partly in flower and on the customary optimum period to harvest, this will make for a late harvest in mid-April
Two fellow grape growers endorsed that this variety would have been flowering at this stage in mid-November in Auckland.
Viticulturists frequently relate events in the phenology of the vine – such as bud burst, flowering or veraison – to local climatic conditions. Knappstein was arguing that vines growing in Central Otago would not have sufficient time to ripen their crop. But Central Otago is more than eight degrees further from the equator than Auckland. During Central’s growing season, days are noticeably longer and climatic regimes are quite different. The later flowering of all grape varieties in Central Otago is itself a response to lower spring temperatures. Such late flowering helps protect the vines from late-spring frosts. Providing that sufficient solar energy is available later in the season to ripen the grapes, the late flowering need not be a problem. Moreover, low precipitation in Central Otago means that picking is less likely to be hurried by rain, although an early autumn frost may result in senescence of the leaves. Viticulturists now argue that Central’s long autumn with warm days and cool nights stimulates the transfer of flavour and colour compounds into the berries of Pinot Noir.