New Zealand’s winegrowing regions are reeling in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle. The storm drove heavy wind and rain across much of the North Island and down the east coast on February 12, killing at least 11 people and displacing thousands more. Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, New Zealand’s second and third largest wine-producing regions, were ravaged by floodwaters and torrents of silt. Recent news suggests the region may be hit with even more heavy rains in the coming days.
Compounding the impact was the timing of the storm, striking on the cusp of the 2023 vintage.
“This has all happened right as harvest is approaching. Last Tuesday was when the devastation was unveiled, and this Tuesday people are out there harvesting grapes,” says Holly Girven Russell, a winemaker who works with Decibel Wines and collaboration label Three Fates, both based in Hawke’s Bay. As a difficult harvest begins, communities rally around the vineyards that have seen the worst damage.
A Cyclone of Historic Proportions
As Cyclone Gabrielle thundered through the South Pacific Ocean in mid-February, it triggered a national state of emergency for only the third time in New Zealand’s history. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins declared it “the most significant weather event New Zealand has seen in this century,” with damage not seen in a generation. The storm is expected to surpass $8 billion in damage.
A tropical cyclone is described as “a rapid rotating storm originating over tropical oceans from where it draws the energy to develop. It has a low-pressure center and clouds spiraling towards the eyewall surrounding the ‘eye’, the central part of the system where the weather is normally calm and free of clouds. Its diameter is typically around 124–311 miles, but can reach 621 miles. A tropical cyclone brings very violent winds, torrential rain, high waves and, in some cases, very destructive storm surges and coastal flooding. The winds blow counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. Tropical cyclones above a certain strength are given names in the interests of public safety,” according to the World Meteorological Organization.
New Zealand is no stranger to tropical cyclones descending from the north. However, warmer sea and air temperatures gave Cyclone Gabrielle extra force. Stronger winds and more rainfall gave rise to sweeping floods, which devastated low-lying Hawke’s Bay.
“We’re surrounded by rivers. There’s a river everywhere you look. This is how Hawke’s Bay was built, all around rivers, all around [the] sea,” points out Hana Montaperto-Hendry who runs Saorsa Wines with her husband Alex Hendry, who is also the winemaker and viticulturist at Linden Estate. Stopbanks were likely never going to contain the sheer volume of water delivered by the cyclone.
A Storm of Silt
The silt has shocked everyone. Thick sludge swallowed vehicles whole, filled cellars and winery buildings and coated everything in filth before drying solid. “The silt is up to the posts… You can drive over the top of it. It’s like they’ve been put in a plaster of Paris mold,” Montaperto-Hendry says.
The clean-up effort is mammoth. “We literally have diggers going into buildings,” says Montaperto-Hendry. The cloying silt is close to suffocating even the resilient spirits of the winemakers.
“[We] got a phone call from Greg Miller, who runs the Valley D’Vine [restaurant] out at Linden Estate, and he said it was bad. He said, ‘the sheep. I couldn’t save them.’ That’s when I knew it was bad,” explains Montaperto-Hendry.
Despite their initial fears, Saorsa Wines made it through relatively unscathed. Linden Estate is a different story. At the time of writing, Hendry was too busy with the clean-up effort to speak, but Montaperto-Hendry shares what her husband saw – the area around Linden Estate is like a desert.
Linden Estate became a default emergency hub in the aftermath of the storm and is also where Hendry helps smaller winemakers like Girven Russell make their wine. The blow to this winery has reverberated throughout the community.
“I woke up on the 14th of February to see a picture of Linden Estate completely underwater, no vineyard visible. You could see water going two meters up the side of the winery. My heart just sank, realizing something bad had happened,” Girven Russell recounts.
Montaperto-Hendry’s voice is thick with emotion as she describes the wreckage. “Linden Estate’s 20-year-old Chardonnay block? It doesn’t matter that it’s now flooded and covered in silt. It’s flat.”
“Anything that’s bottled that is in storage is mostly unbroken. We just need to get it out and clean it, and then we can sell that,” Girven Russell explains. But the going is tough. “You dig, dig, dig [and] dig. And then you look around, and it’s a drop in the ocean [of silt].”
The Cleanup After the Flood
Even in the face of disaster, with more rain on the way, Hawke’s Bay wine community is pulling together those who suffered the worst impact.
“Petane Wines, who have been hit, I don’t even understand how they’re standing upright. They’re amazing. That was their home, vineyards, everything is lost,“ Montaperto-Hendry says.
A collective effort is helping Petane salvage what’s left. In a feat dubbed ‘the great bottle wash,’ around 12,000 bottles were already dug out of thick silt and scrubbed clean by volunteers at Paritua Vineyard, which weathered the cyclone with less damage.
Craggy Range, another vineyard fortunate to escape the worst of the storm, helped provide lunches for the volunteers. The vineyard closed its doors all week to focus instead on producing food and getting meals to evacuation centers, marae and communities in need.
Girven Russell explains that while the cleanup is underway, the hardiness of the vines is on their side. “Vines can happily sit in floodwaters for six weeks with wet feet and pull through absolutely fine. So, people are leaning into that. We’ve got time. Let’s focus on people. Let’s get through the next few weeks.”
The extent of the destruction is yet to be determined, but Girven Russell estimates that the floods ruined at least 500 hectares. Despite this, Hawke’s Bay winemakers are staying stoic and hopeful for the harvest. In Girven Russell’s words, “We’ll get through it.” There will be sad losses, but there will also be some excellent wines made.
“Our famous wine-growing region is Gimblett Gravels and the Bridge Pa Triangle, and they were largely unaffected,” she says. “So they’ll pull through and get some amazing reds, hopefully, if the weather turns around.”
How You Can Help
New Zealand Wine has collated donation details for those who wish to donate to the North Island wine communities. The Red Cross is also accepting donations toward a disaster relief fund and a Givealittle page has been set up to help the owners of Petane Wines.
Girven Russell has straightforward advice on how to help. “Just buy and drink Hawke’s Bay wine. Let people know our region exists and that we want to keep growing grapes and making wine.”