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Central Otago vineyard managers are comfortable with the health of their vines and their staffing numbers as the grapes start to fill out.

Vineyards in the region typically rely on seasonal workers who have previously been employed in the stonefruit industry, but heavy rains at the beginning of 2021 put an early end to last season’s cherry harvest and led to an exodus of workers.

Central Otago Winegrowers Association general manager Jake Tipler said staffing issues had not been a problem for the region this season, and all vineyards were reportedly well on top of their growth.

“This could change as we shift into the harvest period, however that the cherry and stonefruit pickers stay in the region for the grape harvest in March/April,” he said.

Rainfall had been below average which meant disease pressure was relatively low and the vines were very healthy going into the ripening phase of development, he said.

Viticultura co-owner Timbo Deaker said unsettled weather in early December had affected some vines which were in the flowering and fruit set stage, while ones others in areas such as Bannockburn flowered earlier so were not affected.

Viticultura manages vineyards in every subregion of Central Otago and also in North Otago, and Mr Deaker said it was being very cautious of diseases such as powdery mildew but the vines were looking good.

“It will be a very interesting year for the winemakers of Central Otago because clime by clime, vineyard by vineyard, the fruit will be unique.”

In terms of staff, Mr Deaker said the company, which employs about 45 workers from Vanuatu and 15 to 20 New Zealanders, had enough labour to get all its work done on time, and it was able to loan some staff to the cherry industry.

Estate Vineyard Management owner Chad Douglas also shares his Ni-Vanuatu workers with cherry orchardists while his local hires continue with canopy management on vineyards in Tarras, Bendigo, Bannockburn, Cromwell and Alexandra.

The recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers would return to the vineyards in early February, in time to put up nets to protect the ripening fruit from birds.

At the moment, the harvest is looking to be a week or so ahead of schedule, but that could be slowed by cooler weather.

Mr Tipler of the winegrowers’ association said that, ideally, the weather would remain warm and dry for the remainder of the season, allowing the grapes to ripen without disease or excessive plumping and leading to a bumper crop in both quality and quantity.