Well, it’s definitely going to be a vintage to remember – for lots of reasons!
2020 will go down as the year of COVID, a year when authorities paid winemakers millions to turn their wine into hand sanitiser, a year in which finding grape-pickers was more challenging than ever before – and a year when we all had to find different ways of working. And – in some regions at least – it was a year of potentially excellent wines.
Europe’s 2020 wine harvest was underway relatively early following a warm growing season, but in many areas it is also taking place against a backdrop of lost sales – largely due to the economic impact of COVID lockdowns.
The rise and rise of English wine continues apace, helped and hindered by COVID, but for Dermot Sugrue, the “biggest challenge I had was finding pickers. All the big boys (Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Chapel Down etc.) hoovered up all the professional pickers so I was struggling to find enough to pick the Pinots from Mount Harry Vineyard near Lewes, which makes up most of the Sugrue South Downs blend.” However, after he put the call out he got a “terrific response” from Hallgarten staff, who descended on the vineyard to help. “Oh, and it’s going to be a brilliant year with simply exceptional fruit!”
On the other side of the world, a country which fared better than most against the Coronavirus was New Zealand, where wineries were able to complete the grape harvest as “essential businesses.” The total harvest of 457,000 tonnes reflected the near perfect growing conditions. Julie Ibbotson of Saint Clair said: “This vintage was certainly like no other, with the implementation of various stringent guidelines, procedures and protocols, with strict rules surrounding both transport to and from the winery and accommodation arrangements. Social distancing quickly became the norm. But the quality of fruit from Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay has been exceptional.”
Jaime Quendera, winemaker at the top-notch Pegoes Co-Op, near Lisbon, said: We have not had any cases fortunately. We have been working normally, but within the so-called “new normal”: we divided the wine cellar in two, with different shifts and times, with a disinfection between shifts. Our great fear was in the vineyard, but we implemented the same “mirror” plan, prolonged the grape reception for four hours longer, and managed to get everything in. We expect fresh and fruity whites, and very good, ripe and elegant reds. It could be a very good year.”
Meanwhile, over in Tuscany, Antonio Zaccheo, owner of Carpineto, said: “Quantities are a bit lower than average yet the quality is very good with some peaks of real excellence. As for Corona, our activity is outdoors and on a farm, so we’ve been able to follow the paces of Mother Nature without problems. On the sales side, it is another story. All the On premise sales were drastically disrupted and the outlook is definitely cautious.”
Commercially, South Africa had a tough year. Rob McKinlay of the Swartland winery said: “It has not been easy. Interruption to export for six weeks, then local bans on alcohol. At the winery all the internal protocols had to be renewed in line with the safety of our workers, especially on the production line. And as for cash flow, nightmare, but all the staff have been paid on time and no one working at Swartland will go hungry because of this epidemic.”
Commenting on the harvest, Jean Naude of Groot Constantia said: “Our harvest was nearly completed when the hard lockdown was initiated by our Government. We are also very fortunate that not one of our employees as yet have tested positive for the virus. 2020 produced a big crop, where most varieties exceeded our expectations, notably Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz.”
In France, which expected a harvest at around the 45m-hectolitre mark – roughly in-line with the five-year average – the Government gave €250m to aid the wine sector.
Philippe Goulley, of Domaine Jean Goulley in Chablis, said: “Commercially, it was very hard from mid-March to the end of April. In addition, there were many constraints in the cellar – but Chablis is a very small city so we were able to cope. And the vintage: in my opinion it’s one of the very best vintage of the last 30 years.”
That was echoed by Fabrice Brunel, of Domaine André Brunel in Chateauneuf du Pape. “It will be a great vintage in terms of quality and volume. It should be on par with 2019 in terms of complexity, colour and concentration. We didn’t decrease the investment due to COVID. We lost sales in the on premise, but gained in shops.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, the mercurial Andy Quady tells us: “Fortunately we have not lost anyone to that sickness yet but some of our workers had to be quarantined and tested when someone had contact with a person who tested positive. We had a COVID task force which includes: working at home for all office workers; mandatory mask for employees and visitors; mandatory daily temperature checks for employees and visitors; daily sanitizing of work areas; zero company travel except to support winemaking visits to vineyards. But at the same time, we are having a great sales year; we are trying our best to work round this.”
In Spain, two of our suppliers are very optimistic about the vintage. In Navarra, Jose Maria Fraile of Tandem said: “Thanks to our export markets, we are all fine and swimming hard. We started the 2020 harvest on September 16, as usual later than the rest of the region due to our cool Atlantic influence Continental microclimate in any case one week ahead of last year. We can inform you the wines are looking great. The aromas at the winery are sublime.”
In Rias Baixas Inma Pazos of Xose Lois Sebio, tells us: “2020 was a strange year for everyone. We are all concerned how life is changing after this. But Nature is stronger than we think and it will adapt to the new situation. In our winery we had to adapt our methods and as wise people know: in the worst crises come the best opportunities. COVID taught us to a better organization to keep our staff safe and this resulted in a optimize harvest after all: 150.000 kg collected – one of the biggest in my life. The white grapes are very healthy – and the reds are going to be awesome!”
Nature is stronger than we think and we will adapt. Wise words.
In Australia, 2020 was a challenging vintage with wine grape losses due to smoke or fire damage reported in 25% of Australia’s wine regions, but the overall loss was less than 3% of the harvest.
As Matt Herde from Tahbilk informed us in January: “It has been a very tough season in the vineyards right around Australia. It has been very hot, very dry and very windy; we anticipated crops being lower than average, but that is the fickle nature of agriculture in Australia. Rainfall has been below average with the Tahbilk vineyard team kept busy with extra irrigation management; however, overall the vineyards look in excellent condition and we still anticipate a good vintage.”
This was concurred by White Winemaker at Berton Vineyards, Glen Snaidero, who tells us: “What a year full of challenges! Despite having to face a season of drought, bushfires, threat of COVID 19 and multiple rain events in the middle of harvest, remarkably 2020 will be another good vintage in terms of quality for Berton Vineyards. Lower alcohols will be found in some varietals, particularly blends of Semillon, a result of late season rains in February and March but the clean fresh fruit flavours have not been affected.”
In Argentina, Dona Paula’s award winning viticulturist Martin Kaiser said: “The 2020 vintage will be remembered as a special harvest for many factors: It was the warmest vintage of this century, together with the 2009 vintage. And the relatively heavy rainfall fell in a few intense episodes, so dry days predominated, with low relative humidity. These conditions favoured a fast accumulation of sugar in the grapes, so that the harvest was ahead one week in average for the white grapes, and between two to four weeks for the reds. This rapid accumulation of sugars made us fear for the evolution of the polyphenols (tannins). But the good news is that we managed to achieve an optimal polyphenolic maturity, so the wines are of outstanding quality.
Meanwhile, in Chile, Santiago Colvin Izquierdo of Ventolera, told us that “COVID didn’t affect the harvest, because we finished before our authorities took measures. After the harvest we took all the measures in the warehouse to avoid any problem and to take care of the health of our employees. And the vintage looks great.”