Ignorant of the pandemic, vines across Europe enjoyed the attention and care of growers, who in 2020 were able to spend more time in the vineyards. Despite lockdowns and restrictions, agricultural work was permitted.In many ways this provided an opportunity for wine families and vineyard managers to exercise in the fresh air whilst tending their vines with perhaps even more attention than usual.
Each of The Society's buyers has written a summary of the season for the regions they oversee, having gained insight from our suppliers rather than from their usual visits to wine regions. We have yet to taste the 2020 wines comprehensively, so it is still too early to make a definitive judgment of quality. However, the indications are that this is a good to very good vintage in the key fine wine areas of France and Italy and an excellent one for English wine.
Bordeaux – Another Hot Vintage
2020 was another hot vintage in a similar mould to 2018 and 2019. June and July were extremely dry, with no rain. Thankfully there was some rain in August, which was cooler, stopping the vines from shutting down.
Bordeaux Left Bank – the merlots ripened fully and are rich, with raised alcohol levels. But the cabernets, counter intuitively, struggled to ripen due to the heat and lack of rain that characterised the first half of September. Heavy rain arrived after most of the merlots were picked and many estates had to wait 10 days to harvest their cabernets. There was a short window to pick at the end of September as the rain returned in early October. So, a challenging set of circumstances, but the quality is good with one château describing 2020 as classic in style – similar to 2016 or 2014. Yields are particularly small on the left bank, so it may be hard for châteaux to maintain the lower prices of 2019.
Bordeaux Right Bank – similar weather patterns to the left bank, but those with good terroir have thrived. François Despagne is eulogising the vintage, comparing it to 2010 in terms of balance. Alcohol levels are high, but the wines have maintained freshness. He's talking about 2020 being a top vintage. Yields are better than on the left bank.
Burgundy – A Warm & Dry Vintage
2020 is another warm and dry vintage, an early harvest producing low yields of ripe and healthy grapes. If 2018 was warm all year but with normal yields, 2019 is very warm overall but with variable weather comprising heatwaves, frost, hail and some low temperatures and low yields. 2020 is more characterised by drought and some water stress and low yields. Early reports suggest the white wines of 2020 could be very good indeed. Reds probably good but more variable.
Champagne – One Of The Earliest Vintages Ever
Harvest started early after a warm spring and warm/hot summer. Alfred Gratien(who supply our Society's Champagne) began on the 20th August (harvest is normally in September). Early signs suggest the quality will be better than average, but not to the level of 2008 or 2012.
Loire 2020 - Reduced Yields But A Healthy Crop
Much of the Loire enjoyed a hot, dry summer and autumn, reducing yields, sometimes significantly, but producing good levels of maturity and healthy fruit (there were some slow fermentations as a result). The Vinets in Muscadet started on the 21st August one of the earliest of the last 40 years, recalling 1989, 2003, 2011. Denis Jamain in Reuilly started 27th August and finished 12th September, the earliest in the last 20 years with the exception of 2003, but finished with 50% of a normal crop. Reports on the style of the vintage vary, some saying alcohols and acidities are down (a good thing), some the reverse, depending on chosen picking dates. Tastings over the next 10 weeks will bring greater clarity.
Rhône & South of France – Another Very Good Vintage
It is important to know that growers were able to spend a lot more time out in the open, tending their vine, meaning they were able to be very reactive to all the challenges of yet another hot year and yet another early harvest. Spring was hot and flowering was early. June brought some much needed rain but then heat settled in. By mid-August much of the vineyards looked like a desert. Rains came in late August and there was enough of it to change the direction of the vintage. In short, this is another very good vintage. From what I've tasted, the wines seem to be well shaped and balanced with about half to a degree less alcohol.
Austria – A Classic Vintage
It's been labelled a 'classic' vintage. After three unusually hot vintages, 2020 was cooler, wetter and longer, with a wet start to the year but then a long, drawn-out ripening period at the end of the season. The resultant wines have focused acidity and structure which will set the top wines up for ageing well, while being a little more linear in their youth than the more opulent 2019s. Riesling yields were small but good quality. Age-worthy mineral grüners can be expected. Not sure about red wines at this early stage.
England – Outstanding Quality
2020 couldn't have got off to a better start for much of the UK and its vineyards. I'm sure we all remember how glorious the weather was during the first lockdown in March/April, but this warm weather was to be the downfall for many. Accelerated growth meant an early budburst – a time when the vine is at its most vulnerable. Then on the evening of May 13th frost ravaged a huge portion of vineyards across the south coast and beyond. 25 vineyards suffered frost damage to 90-100% of their vines, with Peter Hall of Breaky Bottom suffering almost total loss – his first frost since 1974. Secondary buds can go some way to salvaging a year's harvest, but they're never as plentiful.
Warm, dry weather ensued throughout September leading to many (mainly sparkling wine producers) completing their harvests before they'd normally even start! Thanks to the dry September weather many were able to leave their grapes on the vines for longer than normal too, which lead to a welcome rise in PH levels just before harvest – ideal for the production of still wines in such a marginal climate. September was followed by almost non-stop-rain for a few weeks going into October, so it was essential to have wrapped up harvest before these rains came.
The result is that yields are down for the majority of growers. However, quality looks outstanding, especially for still wines, with a few sparkling-only producers planning on producing (or at least experimenting) with a few still wines this year. 2020 vintage should be one to celebrate and we've got plenty of plans ahead for the next 12 months.
Greece – A Small But Promising Crop
2020 was a warm dry year without too many heat spikes. Yields are down across most of the country but quality is looking promising, especially in the Peloponnese where indigenous varieties such as moschofilero and agiorgitiko look good (albeit in limited quantities), with yields back up to normal on Santorini (although 'normal' is 3-4,000hl per hectare… about a tenth of grand cru Burgundy).
Italy – Early Signs Looking Positive
Many of our Italian suppliers are commenting on this vintage benefitting from unprecedented levels of attention. With grounded winemakers, owners and families, the focus was squarely in the vineyard, especially as it formed part of the only exercise and work allowed under strict lockdowns.
Generally, winter and spring were mild, although with some frost events, notably in Tuscany reducing the potential yields by around 15-20%. June and July were warm, but milder than average, August and September were warmer although without the heatspikes of previous vintages. In the north some localised heavy storms around harvest affected some producers, especially in the Veneto. However, in the south lack of rain was a concern until it arrived later in the season than usual, much to growers' relief.
Winemakers looking at early samples are positive about the potential quality of the reds in Tuscany and Piedmont. Puglia, Abruzzo and Sicily all have good wines in tank, and the whites I am already seeing look great. The styles of wine from the Veneto that rely on dried grapes or a later harvest may be more problematic due to the storms that came in September/October.
Spain – A Challenging Vintage
2020 proved a challenging season for Spanish vineyards with difficult conditions during the spring and at harvest. Both Rioja and Ribera del Duero did not escape so the best wines are likely to come from the growers who had the capacity to make choices about when to pick and from the winemakers who made strict grape selections. This will undoubtedly be a vintage where I will need to taste extensively.