“It never rains but it pours, and for Auckland winegrowers that’s certainly been true this season. Auckland Winegrowers Association Chair Michael Brajkovich MW says a very wet winter and spring was relieved by a spell of fine weather around Christmas, drying everything out. Then the first two weeks of January brough downpours “so we’re back to square one”.

The outlook is nonetheless relatively sunny, with a reasonable flowering and good fruit set, says Michael, noting that the rainfall was pre-veraison, so didn’t damage fruit, “as long as it stays pretty dry from now on”. He’s anticipating a start date around 10 February for Sparkling Wine, followed by table wine later in the month.

Auckland is one of New Zealand's oldest wine regions, established in the early 1900s by passionate Croatian, Lebanese and English winemakers, including Michael’s grandparents Mick and Katé, who came from Croatia with his father Maté in 1937, and by 1944 had saved enough money to purchase a 7ha block in Kumeu, which Mick and Maté cleared to plant in vines.

While such a rich history is integral to Auckland’s wine legacy, it is Chardonnay that has earned Kumeu River Wines, as it’s now called, its global reputation, stacking up against the best in the world, with countless awards and accolades. Michael says the success illustrates how adaptable Chardonnay is to a number of different environments, including their small corner of West Auckland, where it sits in a perfect niche, thanks to early ripening that dodges problems with rot.”

Everything was looking very good for vintage until 27 January. That day we received 260mm of rain over a 12-hour period, and instances of flash flooding. There was minimal vineyard damage, and we had water in the cellar but only for an hour or so. The problem was the sheer amount of water just 4 weeks out from harvest. Downy mildew became a major problem as we were unable to spray the vineyards, and any protection was soon washed off. By the time we had harvested some of our Chardonnay vineyards, they were effectively defoliated. So, even though Hunting Hill, Coddington and Mate’s all looked amazing on the vine, there were few leaves to continue the ripening process.

Our Rays Road vineyard in Hawkes Bay did not get the January deluge, but did endure the wicked weather that came with Cyclone Gabrielle. At 180m altitude, we were not affected by flooding, but the rainfall was still significant. As in Kumeu, we had to harvest somewhat earlier than usual, but the wines still have the zesty minerality and vibrancy that is typical of that limestone soil.

Everything was harvested by hand, allowing for meticulous triage so that only high quality fruit made it to the presses. We decided to use no new oak for fermentation, but having such a small vintage meant that the proportion of 1 and 2 year-old barrels was much higher than usual, and the oak feel to these wines is very similar to a normal vintage.

A few weeks after vintage was over, and the ferments had settled down, the wines in the cellar were looking very good indeed, albeit a little lighter in texture than the previous 4 vintages. The most encouraging thing about 2023 is that all of the individual vineyard terroir characters are shining through strongly, still giving that strong sense of place and vineyard character.