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The worst February on record?
© by Sue Courtney
29 February 2004

When wine lovers from overseas ask me the best time to visit New Zealand I often recommend February. It's normally the hottest time of the year with settled weather, lots of sun and little rain. As well the kids are back in school. But after February 2004, I think I'll change my mind!

I woke up on Sunday February 1st in Wellington to a wet, grey dismal day. And that is how almost all of February's 29 days of 2004 began.

The wet beginning, with only a brief respite on the Waitangi Day holiday (Feb 6th) was the build-up up to the extreme storm, the hundred-year storm (the second one in 4 months!), worse than Cyclone Bola in 1988, worse than any storm we've ever known with the widespread damage worse than that of the Napier Earthquake of 1931. But one storm wasn't the end of it. It was a continual onslaught with low pressure system after low pressure system after low pressure system, firstly from the south, straight off the Antarctic iceshelf bringing wintry temperatures with it, then swinging to the south west. Flooding affected the lower North Island and the top of the South. Rivers rose metres above their normal level, taking out bridges and bursting their stopbanks. What was once pristine farmland is now a silt-covered mess. Houses are uninhabitable and some families have lost everything they ever owned. The photos tell the story. Grown men are allowed to cry.

Then just when you come up for a breather the tail end of Cyclone Ivy hits from the north east bringing more rain. Lake Taupo is at its highest level in 100 years. At the southern end of the lake, Turangi becomes water-logged when the famous Tongariro River bursts its stopbanks.

In the mid-February onslaught, the Wairarapa was the worst vineyard affected region. Those who have travelled to Martinborough, entering from Featherston may recall the elevated one lane wooden flood-bridge beside the main highway bridge over the Ruamahanga River. It looks so high when you pass it but even that was under water I'm told.

Martinborough Square experienced minor flooding as the storm water system tried to cope but the vineyards got off relatively scot-free. Claire Mulholland from Martinborough Vineyards said that there were reports of one or two isolated vineyards near the river being flooded but those on the Martinborough Terraces had the advantage of the stony terrace soils for the water to drain through. However the underlying water table almost filled to capacity and the natural irrigation has encouraged weed and canopy growth. "The winds have dried out things quite a bit. People are pleased to have open canopies. I think we are all watching crop levels carefully given the cooler temperatures recently along with the rain which are cutting our ripening days down compared with the norm. Of course we are praying for the classic Wairarapa Indian summer to kick in anytime about now!!!", she said.

"The wind has not been a problem", said Ollie Masters of Ata Rangi Vineyard. "We always have wind down here". But it is a different story in Hawkes Bay.

Warren Gibson of Bilancia Vineyards reports that the high winds have taken their toll on the newer vineyards with the metal trellising stakes. "The rain softens the ground, the stakes move then the wind comes and blows them over taking the vines with them. It's created extra work and cost with the repairs and maintenance, as well as taking the labour way from other work such as netting and bunch thinning"

John Hancock of Trinity Hill concurs. "The wind and rain has caused a lot of extra work. The rain has caused vigorous growth and the wind whips the canopy out of the trellising. So it is an extra cycle through the vineyard to tuck it all in again.

Alan Limmer of Stonecroft Wines also experienced trellising damage. But his were sturdy wooden poles that snapped like a toothpick. "We're not used to 150-160kmph winds with a full canopy", he said.

Mark Compton of Soljan Wines reported that Gisborne had been relatively lucky from the southerly onslaught, for once Gisborne was in the lee of the weather and even had sunshine during the month. "The fruit looks pristine and even though we were ahead in growing degree days during January now, with the cool weather, we are about a week behind", he said. But I spoke to Mark before the north easterlies from Cyclone Ivy hit.

Simon Nunns from Coopers Creek said that in their Auckland vineyard the reds have stalled partway through veraison due to the unseasonal cool weather. With the Chardonnay, the leaves around the bunches have been removed to expose the grapes to the wind and light and to keep the disease pressure down. The rain has not been a bother but the vines are full of vigour. They are trimming twice as much as normal and the grass between the rows is going crazy.

Ben Glover from Wither Hills in Marlborough said they have not had too much damage except for wind on young vines. "Marlborough is a diverse region so it depends where the crops are planted how they will be affected. People need to be aware of crop load and ripeness. We donít want any more rain now that the berries have gone into veraison and we are hoping for a sunny Autumn"

Further south in Central Otago, the only region to experience frost damage in the Spring, there has not been the wind and torrential rain the rest of the country has seen. Roger Gibson of reports that at the beginning of February they were in drought mode, now the hills are showing glimpses of green. The hills were also showing glimpses of white when the unseasonal cool saw winter-like temperatures during the midsummer month.

Everyone is hoping for a sunny March with fine weather continuing into April. It's likely to be a late vintage almost everywhere. It solely depends on the weather.

© Sue Courtney
29th February 2004

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