Wildfires, trade wars, COVID-19: The 2020 global wine harvest may go down as the most challenging yet
In Burgundy, starting in mid-August, masked workers fanned out into vineyards, carefully socially distanced, to begin picking grapes. It was the beginning of one of the earliest harvests of the past 650 years, and it is now ending.
The 2020 harvest looks pretty different in many places around the world, much of it due to climate change: scorching heat and deadly wildfires in California’s Napa and Sonoma; drought and heat waves in France; thunderstorms and tornadoes in Italy.
Add in worry over the global economic malaise, and the 2020 harvest is shaping up to be one of the most troublesome in memory. COVID-19 closed tasting rooms and restaurants. The 25% tariffs the U.S. imposed on English, French, Spanish, and German wines caused exports to drop dramatically, and the tariffs, sadly, will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
As a result, European cellars are full of unsold wine. While 2020’s generous crop is welcome in regions such as Burgundy, the government in Spain is paying farmers to reduce yields through green harvesting, or thinning the number of grape bunches on vines. (The compensation can be up to 60% of the usual price of lost grapes.)
With so much unsold wine clogging up their wineries, some vintners don’t have enough space to age the wine from this year’s generous crop. To make room, some are selling excess stocks in bulk to distilleries at a deep discount to be turned into—ouch—hand sanitizer and perfume.
So how is this trouble-plagued harvest going to turn out? Here’s my report.
Let’s start with the part of the world that currently looks scariest.
The vintage on the U.S. West Coast seemed destined to be pretty good until heat waves, wildfires, and smoke arrived at the end of August in Napa and Sonoma counties while vintners were still picking white grapes. Crews continued last week to harvest in smoke-filled air, often at night to avoid soaring daytime temperatures. As heat pushed ripening, there was a need to pick before the grapes got overripe. (Cool Mendocino hit 110F.) Surprisingly, skies were blue in some places.
In Napa, the now-mostly contained fires were in the Vaca Mountains on the remote east side of the valley. They killed three people, burned 165,000 acres, and damaged more than 1,000 homes and structures, including two wineries and several vineyards. The famous, 45-year-old cabernet vineyard at Volker Eisele Family Estate in Chiles Valley was destroyed.
Smoke is a problem for vintage 2020, as taint from extensive exposure ruins grapes and could significantly reduce the quantity of wine this year, especially reds.
Current theory has it that smoke high in the atmosphere doesn’t damage grapes, so the situation might not be as bad as it looks. Testing facilities are so swamped that no one knows how widespread taint is, and Napa’s varied topography, wind, and weather patterns mean that areas have different levels of exposure to smoke-filled air.
For example, Lamborn Family Vineyards on Howell Mountain posted on Sept. 10 that it will make no wine at all in 2020—the entire crop lost to taint. But on the valley floor, Matthiasson, which was picking red grapes last week under a creepy, orange-colored sky, reported that this year’s fruit is beautiful and has tested negative for taint. Many vineyards haven’t yet harvested their cabernet. Winemakers are trying to stay upbeat.
In Sonoma, the problem is similar, with fires focused in the northern part of the county, especially in Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley. Other wine regions, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey, are also suffering, and as everyone points out, it’s only mid-September.
Conditions in Oregon are unprecedented, with fire and smoke drift threatening every wine-producing region in the state, according to the Oregon Wine Board. Last week, one of the worst fires, in the southern part of the state, completely destroyed a winery in the Rogue Valley AVA.
Further north, smoke is streaming into the Willamette Valley, home to some of the best pinot noir makers in the U.S., from wildfires near Portland and in the Cascade Mountains east of the valley. It’s actually lowering daytime temperatures. A fire on Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak, the highest point in the Willamette Valley, caused winery evacuations but no destruction.
Still, despite the situation, many winemakers say fruit quality is exceptional. Others think quality will be very site-specific. All are counting on a rain forecast for Tuesday to wash pinot noir grapes clean before they’re picked.
So far, wineries in Washington state have avoided damage from fires and smoke, which are about 100 miles northwest of the Red Mountain and Walla Walla regions. But everyone is worried.
Jean Frederic Hugel of top producer Famille Hugel says the region’s warm, dry conditions and a harvest 10 days earlier than last year’s mean no rotten grapes at all—a once in a lifetime event. “So far,” he says, “it looks miraculous.”
But 2020’s bumper crop is a mixed blessing. Sales of the oft-underrated Alsace wines are at an all-time low, thanks to a big crop in 2018, the pandemic, and the U.S. tariffs. There was a regional push to produce 20% less wine. Even Hugel lowered his yields by thinning bunches, even in the most prestigious vineyards, for the first time in a decade, and will make less gewurztraminer.
Acidity is on the lower side, so expect juicy, rich pinot noirs and bold pinot gris.
So far, optimism reigns. Just south of Bordeaux, winemaker Jean-Philippe Delmas of first growth Château Haut-Brion emailed: “We were graced with almost perfect conditions. The last time we had such a hot dry summer was in 1949, and that was a great vintage.”
Jacques Lurton, president of Vignobles Lurton, says harvest is about two weeks early. The company has picked whites at the several châteaux it owns and started on reds at Château La Louviere last week. “There are surprisingly good levels of acidity in the whites, despite summer’s warm weather,” Lurton says. “Wines will be well-balanced, with alcohol on the lower side, and—though not as complex as 2019—they’ll have good flavor intensity.” Still, Château de Rochemorin lost 25% of its crop, due to mildew.
This was the third hot, dry vintage in a row, explains Master of Wine Jasper Morris, author of Inside Burgundy, who describes a July with brutal heat waves that pushed ripening. Some winemakers in the Côte de Nuits, in the northern part of Burgundy, finished picking before the end of August. For some, the harvest went better than expected, with quantities from average to very low.
Veronique Drouhin Boss of Domaine Joseph Drouhin says its pinot noir was ripe before the chardonnay, and some producers in the Côte de Beaune picked both at the same time. “The whites have charm and balance,” she says, “and the reds great intensity and aging potential.” Sorting was essential; heat dried some pinot grapes into hard raisins with practically no juice, so there are tiny yields for reds.
There will be lots of variation in quantity, quality, alcohol levels, and style this year. Danielle Hammon, of Becky Wasserman & Co., explains: “A grower’s choices about when to harvest and how much flavor and tannin to extract will play a huge role in the quality of the wine.”
About 120,000 workers swarmed into the vineyards of this usually chilly region where harvest, the earliest ever, began on Aug. 17 in some of its 319 villages. Comite Champagne, the regional trade organization that sets start dates and the maximum grape yield per hectare, cut yields by about 25%, which translates into 230 million bottles, compared to nearly 300 million last year. That’s because global sales of bubbly shrank by 30% in the first six months of 2020.
That should push quality higher, as growers select only the best grapes, says Vitalie Taittinger, whose family owns Champagne Taittinger. “The chardonnays are exceedingly fresh, while the pinot noirs are presenting wonderful aromas.”
Quality and quantity look good, a happy contrast to years when frost and drought decimated vineyards. This cool region, whose grapes used to struggle to ripen, benefits from global warming. “Vouvray and Montlouis look superb,” reports Jacky Blot of leading producer Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups, which made great whites in 2019. Indeed, 2020 is the earliest harvest since 1556. Blot jokes that maybe they’re going to be like winemakers in Bordeaux, with every year the vintage of the century.
“The white grapes are superb, with good freshness,” says Alain Graillot, whose eponymous domaine in the northern Rhône’s Crozes-Hermitage makes stellar whites and reds. He started picking reds during the last week in August.
Some vintners have worried about scorching summer heat, but cold summer nights helped most grapes keep balance and acidity. Marc Perrin, whose family owns organically farmed Château de Beaucastel in the southern Rhône, explains, “If the harvest continues as it’s started, 2020 should be a great vintage.”
Expect big differences from region to region. Overall quality is good, but quantity will be way down in some regions. In Franciacorta, source of Italy’s top sparkling wines, the Arcari + Danesi winery lost 30% of its harvest because of extreme weather. In the Valpolicella region in the Veneto, an intense storm caused €6 million ($7.1 million) in vineyard damage. In Puglia, spring frosts mean less wine.
On the other hand, the weather in Chianti Classico was optimal, and Innocente Nardi, the president of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco consortium, says quality of the best proseccos is in line with the excellent wines of 2019. For both, a mild summer without heat spikes or drought and just the right amount of rain guaranteed perfect ripeness.
Grand estate Ornellaia, in Tuscany’s coastal Bolgheri region, started harvesting grapes for its rare white in mid-August. Picking for its famed red begins this week. “With a shift from rainy to dry to very hot, it wasn’t a perfect year,” says winemaker Axel Heinz, “but the wines have beautiful potential.”
Castello Banfi, which has vineyards in Piedmont and Tuscany, reports: “Overall, quality is great.” It will start picking Brunello in two weeks.
Spain is mostly looking at a bumper crop, though not everywhere. A rainy spring in Priorat brought mildew, cutting yields even at such top producers as Cellier Mas Doix, which started harvesting early, in August. Mildew also hit vineyards in the cava-producing region of Penedes; some producers lost up to two-thirds of their grapes.
In Rias Baixas, on the northern coast, finding pickers was a struggle.
Miguel Torres Jr, whose eponymous family wine company owns vineyards in several regions from Priorat to Rioja, warns that quality will vary from bodega to bodega because drought and high temperatures took a toll on grapes. “Wineries with good teams in the vineyards have the ability to make a better selection,” he says. The Rioja harvest is just starting.
In the Douro Valley, for the first time since 1827, there will be no foot treading of the grapes at Quinta do Vesuvio. The tradition of people locking arms and marching back and forth in stone lagares as they crush the harvest, as was done for millennia, still produces superior wine to mechanical feet. But the pandemic makes it impossible. And 2020 has delivered other challenges.
“The average July temperature at Vesuvio and our other properties was the highest in 40 years, and it’s only the second time we have ever started picking in August,” says Rob Symington, whose family owns estates in both the Douro and Alentejo. In both, heat has dehydrated grapes, cutting yields to as much as 40% less than forecast at one property. Some grapes fared better than others. Symington expects to make decent ports in 2020, and red wines from touriga nacional and tinta cao grapes look especially good. In the Alentejo region, the harvest started a week earlier than usual, as well as in Vinho Verde.
This year’s warm, fairly dry summer pushed ripening and harvest dates 10 days earlier than a decade ago for producers in the usually chilly Mosel region. And, says Egon Muller IV, whose family estate dates back to 1797, “It’s a much bigger crop than last year’s.” He’ll start picking riesling on Sept 21.
Ernie Loosen, of Dr. Loosen estate, says the grapes are healthy and ripe, but acidity levels aren’t quite as high as usual. Expect rounder wines with less of that typical zingy acidity.