The Lockdown Harvest: Nikolai St George The Lockdown Harvest
Ever wondered what it's like to be a Chief Winemaker during harvest? How about during lockdown?!
We knew this would be an unusual harvest right from the get-go.
Even back in the planning stages, we were expecting this vintage would be a bit of a squeeze, with a lot of fruit booked in. Veraison is the stage of growth when grapes start to colour up and accumulate sugar, and it also informs our picking decisions. Having a long, drawn-out veraison period made picking decisions difficult – we could be tasting fruit from a bunch where some grapes were ripe and some were still green. For Pinot Noir this meant we had to pick later than usual to ensure that all the tannins were ripe; for Sauvignon Blanc this has turned out to be a real advantage.
In the lead-up to harvest I usually spend most of my time out in the vineyards, assessing fruit, and ensuring the winery systems are in top shape. This year a pre-COVID research trip meant that once we got back, we were straight into vintage mode and prepping the winery for the incoming arrival of fruit. Fortunately for us, this came a little later than expected which took some of the pressure off.
But then of course, we saw COVID-19 starting to spread across Europe, which really for us created a lot of unknowns. We have cellar crew join us from all over the world every harvest, so our existing team had to track all of their movements, identify risk, keep in touch with them, and let them know if they would need to take a two-week stand down. We have harvest crew this year from around 30 countries so our team had their work cut out for them. This ensured the whole team’s health and safety but definitely meant a few more nerves than normal… If the vintage crew had arrived any later, New Zealand’s borders would have been closed and there would not have been anyone to help with harvest!
Level 4 Lockdown in New Zealand meant a stop to anything non-essential. Businesses and schools were closed, travel severely limited, and gatherings cancelled. Fortunately, as a primary industry, wine producers were classified as essential and therefore still able to work, albeit under very strict health-focused guidelines.
The wine industry being classified as essential was a massive relief – not just for us but for the wine industry as a whole. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to pick or buy grapes, which would have meant no 2020 vintage. This would have been devasting not just for our business, but for growers and distributors that rely on our wine throughout the industry.
Because of this we felt a huge responsibility to New Zealand and the wine industry to get it right, limit any risk, and ensure there were no outbreaks. Giesen were one of the first wineries to act; we formulated a plan to lock down the entire nightshift team into vineyard housing to make sure at least one of our teams was able to fully quarantine. This also meant the nightshift team started lockdown a week earlier than the rest of New Zealand, being fully self-contained to the extent that many staff moved into temporary accommodation away from their families.
With our team divided into shifts, our Senior Winemaker Duncan headed up the day shift while I helped out running nights. I haven’t been on night shift for years so it was a bit of shock to the system at first! Once I got my sleeping pattern sorted and our family adjusted to lockdown, life got better, and I found a nice cold Panhead APA with my dinner-time cereal after finishing my shift really helped!
Apart from night shift and COVID the biggest difference is that I could not visit vineyards, so spent significantly more time in the winery. We had some excellent vintage recruits and it was really nice having more time than usual to get to know them as we navigated isolation challenges together.
One of the challenges the night shift team faced was getting enough sleep. Without naming names I know one person did sleep in their van to avoid the snoring that was going on in the room next door! This led into another of our challenges, which was running out of coffee. When supplies got a little low I thought there might have been a night shift mutiny – the night shift is fuelled on coffee and we’re zombies without it.
On the plus side, night shift is great as there are less distractions so we can really knuckle down and get through lots of work. It makes for a really solid team as everyone is the same boat.
The best part of lockdown for me was having more defined limits to my working day. This was because we had to leave the winery with enough time to have it cleaned before our day shift team arrived. For me this created some really good habits and meant that everything was logged to hand over to the day team. Usually there is so much work that it is difficult to leave, so hours at work can really creep up! Having to be diligent about our hours really helped stop that.
I also saw my kids a lot more this vintage. I was waking up around 2pm in the afternoon so could spend some time with them during the day – this is a rarity and you usually go 6 weeks without really seeing them much. They were very good alarm clocks and would come in at one minute past two, regardless of whether I had got any sleep or not!
I am pleased to be back on days however it takes a lot longer to reset the body clock. Getting back into normal family life can take a bit of adjusting, just like trying to only work an eight-hour day. The end of vintage is usually marked by a celebration to close out harvest; this lets everyone unwind, reset, and come back together as a whole winery team. For obvious reasons we weren’t able to do this, so it definitely felt a bit strange to transition back to normal life without that celebration.
One of the best wines I think we’ll see out of this vintage is definitely Sauvignon Blanc. Because veraison was so drawn out this meant we had a long, slow ripening period too; this means we have wines that have the herbal crunch from the greener fruit, but also the aromatic ripe tropicals from the river fruit – all from one vineyard. This is one of the best vintages I’ve seen in the last decade so I’m excited to see the results.