Images Courtesy of Petrina Darrah
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.