The remarkable events of 2020 have conspired to give a highly varied picture of the vintage across Europe's wine regions. Here our buyers give their impressions of this extraordinary year (with the exception of Burgundy, where Toby Morrhall focuses on the 2019 vintage). These reports include the latest from Europe's classic regions, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône, Italy and Spain; but we also report on areas that have seen incredible growth thanks to our members' thirst for exploration, including Austria and Greece.
Europe vintage reports 2021
'Marked by the sun' is how the Hugel family have described their first impressions of the 2020 harvest, a worthy successor to 2009, 2011 and 2015. The hot, dry conditions meant that their vineyards were not affected by noble rot – so they, at least, have not made vendange tardive or sélection de grains nobles wines – and despite some welcome rain towards the end of harvest the crop remained healthy throughout. The exceptionally low summer rainfall will have affected some parts of the region more than others, and yields are certainly down across the board.
2019 was also marked by drought, even heatwaves, and more reminiscent of 2003. Fortunately, the vineyards had water reserves from a rather wet spring, and the smaller crop – down on the already low five-year average – provided concentrated wines, not necessarily lacking in acidity, and the potential to produce some great bottles, including VT and SGN. In contrast, 2018 provided both quantity and quality. The best of both these vintages will need a little more time to show their true colours.
2016s and 2017s are starting to open up; 2015s are powerful but starting to be accessible. 2010 remains the standout vintage of the last two decades.
Joanna Locke MW
2017, 2018 and 2019 saw much of Austria experiencing hotter vintages than the producers have been used to. Many were caught by surprise in 2017, with the drawn-out hot temperatures causing a record early harvest. By 2018, however, the top wineries were prepared and despite the even hotter temperatures managed to pick at the right time and maintain acidity very well. Although temperatures in 2019 briefly went even higher, for the most part it was a more moderate year and conditions were nigh-on perfect, making 2019 one of the best Austrian vintages of the decade. The top wines have longevity but due to the ripe fruit are approachable early too.
By contrast, 2020 has been labelled as a 'classic' Austrian vintage, in a return to closer to normal conditions. It was a significantly cooler vintage in most of the country with a lot more rainfall than the last few years. The wines show superb acidity and while the top examples may take longer to come around than the generous 2019s, they look set to age remarkably well, so this is a vintage for the patient. At the entry level, the wines show superb energy and acidity. The juicy, opulent fruit flavours are slightly toned down and wines have more structure and freshness than the previous three or so vintages.
Purchases of Beaujolais by Wine Society members have mushroomed over the past three years, and it is not hard to understand why. With a number of recent excellent vintages, and a general trend away from richer, more alcoholic reds, the wines of Beaujolais are appealing to an increasingly broad cross-section of wine drinkers. At the most affordable end of the scale, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages offer uncomplicated, juicy fruit character and soft texture. The wines are particularly appealing slightly chilled over the summer months and can be consumed on their own or with a wide array of foods.
Producing Beaujolais, however, is not easy. The cost of production is relatively high, with mechanisation difficult if not impossible thanks to the bush vines that can't be trained on wires, meaning for example that machine harvesting is out of the question. Unfortunately, with the bulk market prices for straight Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages at a low level, production for many has become unsustainable, and an increasing number of growers in the south of the region are throwing in the towel.
At 'cru' level – that's the top ten villages that include Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon – things are a little less precarious, as prices are more sustainable. Here there is a growing band of young, keen vignerons taking over from the previous generation and making seriously good wines. Cru Beaujolais wines offer a more serious take on the Beaujolais experience, and provide some of the most interesting, authentic 'vins de terroir' that France has to offer. Keep a look out for the wines of Grégoire Hoppenot, with whom we started working last year, buying his inaugural 2018 vintage. Grégoire was named 'Newcomer of the Year' by the Revue du Vin de France, the most influential of France's wine publications. We are pleased to have got our foot in the door early, as his wines are becoming increasingly sought after.
In terms of vintages, the best wines of 2020 are delicious, offering that rare combination of ripeness and freshness, although growers who picked late tended to make rather jammy wines – rigorous selection was vital in 2020. The 2019s at cru level are excellent, and we are offering plenty of different wines from 2019 over the course of this year. The 2018s are hitting their stride now, and anyone lucky to have 2017s and 2016s in their cellars will be very happy opening their bottles in the coming months.
Despite no visits to Bordeaux since my brief trip in January 2020, I have nevertheless been able to taste a huge number of samples in my kitchen at home.
The good news is that there is a great deal of excellent wine around to suit all budgets, and lots to look forward to in the coming months if you're a claret fan.
With the global pandemic adversely affecting growers who traditionally sell to restaurants, and the Trump tariffs impacting châteaux with a presence in the USA, Bordeaux is keen to do deals, and with so many good recent vintages available there is an embarrassment of choice. At the sub-£10 end of the spectrum the 2018 and 2019 vintages are excellent, with plenty of plush fruit character and much pleasure to be had. Higher up the scale I have been picking up parcels of wines from some fine vintages including 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016, all of which we will be offering in the year ahead.
As I write this report (early April) I am yet to taste any wines from the 2020 vintage, so can only be guided by my trusted contacts in the region to offer a first impression of the wines. There is often a great deal of hyperbole surrounding the new vintage release – 'vintage of the century', etc. – so I pick and choose very carefully whose opinion I canvass. The normally reserved François Despagne, owner of right bank property Château Grand Corbin Despagne in Saint-Emilion, is uncharacteristically eulogistic about the quality of 2020, describing is as 'magnifique', and putting the wines at a similar level to the excellent 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 vintages. The wines have a certain richness, according to François, with balance of fruit, alcohol and tannins similar to the outstanding 2010 vintage. Sébastien Olivar, who manages Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux in the Médoc is also enthusiastic, although volumes were down compared with 2019. Sébastien describes the style of the vintage as 'classique' on the left bank, more in the mould of 2014 and 2016 than the more opulent 2018s and 2019s. In the coming weeks I will taste 100s of samples from 2020, so will be able to form my own view ahead of the forthcoming en primeur campaign.
Finally, for those with wines in storage in Stevenage or at home, here are some vintages that are drinking particularly well now.
Starting to drink: 2016, 2015, 2011, 2005.
Drinking now: 2012, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2004, 2001, 2000.
Early vintage reports on Burgundy are invariably misleading so we wait a year to give a more accurate appraisal Here we report on 2019.
The 2019 vintage
The defining character of the 2019 wines is their high quality and extraordinary concentration and balance. Made from very low yields, approximately half a normal crop for whites and 70% for reds, their density and intensity of flavour is seldom seen. The vintage is really good everywhere. Both colours are very successful. Geographically and hierarchically there is widespread success.
Remarkably, although this was statistically a very warm year, the flavours are within the normal Burgundian register. The character of each terroir is preserved. It seems the acidity was also concentrated and the wines have an unusual freshness, given the high level of maturity.
Like all vintages of high maturity, the lesser vineyards which struggle to ripen in a good year have done proportionately better, but not to the extent that the quality hierarchy is upset. I think there are some exceptional village wines this year, but to be clear, they are not better than the premiers crus. Some of the wines will be approachable young but will keep very well, and I think it worth doing so to develop their full potential. The only character that shows this is a year of high maturity is the alcohol levels which are a little higher than usual. These are commonly between 13.5% and 14% with rare instances of c14.5%. However, there is so much fruit concentration that one is virtually never aware of it.
What to look out for
Global warming is favouring the cooler villages and those which historically had firm tannins. Saint-Aubin and Saint-Romain whites are now ripe every year and retain a pleasing freshness. Reds in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard and Maranges now have sweet tannins and are perhaps still a little underpriced.
Sylvain Pataille is a star, making all three colours, red, rosé and white superbly. He makes lovely aligoté and formed a group called Les Aligoteurs to promote this variety. We will offer some of his single-vineyard aligotés in the autumn. Later in the year we will feature up-and-coming stars Jérôme Galeyrand, and Amélie Bertaut-Gerbet who have some lovely lesser wines such as Côte de Nuits-Villages and Fixin, as well as Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée.
This year, instead of my usual January visit to the chilly cellars of Reims and Epernay, I found myself in my spare bedroom, tasting bottles of vin clair kindly couriered to my home by our suppliers. These embryonic still wines, just through their first ferment, showed great promise with pinot noir showing exceptional concentration.
2020 is a small vintage. Maximum yields, which are set each year by the region's governing body, CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) were restricted to reflect the immediate drop in exports experienced by the Champagne houses as the world went into successive lockdowns. The result was a reduction of 25% compared to 2019, itself a vintage that was smaller than average.
2020 was also a very early vintage, following a warm to hot summer that led to harvesting in mid-August. That had the advantages of great concentration of flavours, and less disease pressure, though, at the bulk end of the market, where second pressings are used, acidity levels may be a little low. However, for the houses we work with, 2020 should be an excellent vintage, especially for those blends that favour pinot noir.
Sarah Knowles MW
The pandemic has robbed me of two trips to visit Corsica but of course, thanks to DHL and others, I have been able to taste and even put blends together. This year's Society's Corsican Rosé seems to be particularly good, as fine as it has always been but with a little more freshness.
One of the things I missed was a trip to Ajaccio on the west coast. I'll get there eventually and I'm sure there are members who will tell me just how beautiful it is. In the meantime, I was able to make contact with one of the leading estates, Domaine Comte Peraldi, and I'm delighted to report that we will be listing a rosé this summer.
Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, 2020 was a hugely successful vintage qualitatively for English vineyards. Quantitatively, however, yields were way down on both 2019 and the enormous 2018, thanks mainly to a devastating frost on 13th and 14th May, exacerbated by the wonderful weather in the weeks that preceded it. Producers across the south coast, Sussex in particular, reported losses of anywhere between 50% and 90%, with Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom one of the worst hit – his first major frost since the '70s. The rest of the growing season went without any major issues, with a long, warm summer that led to rising PHs towards harvest – ideal for still wines. Harvesting at the right time was essential, however, with a deluge of rain at the start of October. So although quantity is down, quality looks very high, especially for still whites and reds.
To drink this year we'll be releasing some delicious still 2018s including our first-ever English red wines. There are still a number of outstanding sparkling wines to enjoy from the wonderful 2016 vintage, with some producers now releasing their equally good 2017s. Keep an eye out for some later releases from Nyetimber as well.
In the early days of The Society, German wine played a significant part in the choices laid out to members, much more so than today. And yet we are far more representative of what Germany has to offer; in other words, not just riesling.
Members are responding positively with growing sales of wines from the pinot family. Pinot noir, or spätburgunder in German, is beginning to be seen more often here. Not such a known fact is that Germany is the third-largest producer of pinot noir (behind the USA and France) and the grape is fast becoming the standard-bearer for red wine in Germany, much as riesling is for whites.
My favourite for drinking this summer is a rosé from the 2020 vintage and from the Kesselstatt estate in the Mosel.
2020 is being hailed as a huge success across Greece. In Nemea the indigenous varieties coped well with a heat spike just before harvest, with roditis and moschofilero performing particularly well.
In Naoussa the early signs indicate an excellent year. An otherwise extremely warm, dry vintage was saved by showers at the end of September which helped refreshed the vines. The best vintages to drink now are 2016/2017 for the premium wines (£20+), 2018 for fuller, richer xinomavro and 2019, which offers outstanding quality at all price levels.
On Santorini warmer than average weather during flowering helped save yields, which returned to 'normal' in 2020 (circa 4-5,000kg per hectare) with concentration and typicity retained.
On Crete yields look to be down, but quality is extremely high. Nikos Karavitakis says, 'overall we will remember 2020 as a vintage of struggle and pain. The wines, though, will be here to remind us that even out of the most difficult circumstances we, as winemakers, can produce something memorable.'
2020 proved difficult for reasons that were not only Covid-19 related. After almost no rain from January to May, June was extremely wet and, although not a total washout, this is the wettest year since the ill-fated 2010 vintage. That said, dry wines from 2020 look surprisingly good for such a difficult year. The sweeter Aszú wines are the success of the vintage.
To drink this year, look out for dry Tokaji releases from 2016 and 2017, and buy as much 2016 Aszú as you possibly can – it's outstanding!
2020 will go down as the year that vine-owners and winemakers spent with their vineyards. As lockdowns around the world prevented travel, many of our Italian suppliers talked of the silver lining of suddenly being able to get fully hands-on again, to focus on their plots, tend their vines and reflect on the year. This vintage will be special for that reason, having benefited from a level of scrutiny that can't often be lavished on each vine, and the management of vineyard processes with micro precision.
Having now tasted 2020 whites from the length and breadth of Italy, I can report that the generally warm, dry season has led to good levels of concentration, albeit on slightly lower than average yields. The reds to come look promising too, securing Italy's position as a magnet for members looking for character and interest at all price points.
Looking at Tuscany in a little more detail, winemakers are speaking very positively about the 2020 sangiovese harvest, still in tank or barrel, but already showing impressively intense aromatics. Meanwhile, there are still a few 2016 Riservas which are showing beautifully and should be snapped up, while there is yet more good drinking to be had both from the concentration and structure of 2017 and the elegance and charm of 2018.
In Piedmont, winemakers are being very positive about how 2020 played out, with warm but not too hot weather through August and September culminating in an October harvest. The daily temperature fluctuations on the warmer days is also being credited for the highly aromatic nature of these embryonic wines that will need time to develop, but expectations are high. 2017 Barolo came as a bit of a surprise, as the best wines of a tricky vintage had ripeness and charm while retaining great acidity. However, as the 2018s from Barolo and Barbaresco come to market there may be a more widely anticipated campaign as the vintage started cool and enjoyed good weather throughout, allowing for both high quality and good yields.
Sarah Knowles MW
This vast region is one that The Society has represented in strength over many years, and it continues to evolve. Many years ago, I remember meeting the late and much missed Peter Sichel over a glass of something in a tiny restaurant close to his offices in Bordeaux. It was a cold January evening and Peter told us about his love of the Corbières and of his dreams of planting vines. The estate is called Trillol. His son Benjamin was in charge at one time; today, Peter's grandson, Alex, is in charge and has embarked on an ambitious project to create a wine worthy of Peter's name. I cannot wait to go out there and walk among these hallowed vines, dominated by the Cathar fortresses of Quéribus and Peyrepertuse. Watch this space!
Reports on the style of the 2020 vintage vary, with some saying alcohols and acidities are down, some the reverse, depending partly on which part of the valley you were in, partly on the choice of picking dates, with freshness generally maintained better in the west than in the east. 'Now and not later' was how Charlotte Denis of Domaine de la Renaudie in Touraine summed up the harvest, the picking window for sauvignon blanc being a particularly restricted one, and especially after the hot, dry summer of last year. It was generally an early harvest as a result – the Vinets in Muscadet recalled 1989, 2003 and 2011, with 2020 one of the earliest in 40 years. For Denis Jamain in Reuilly only 2003 was earlier (and he, regrettably, finished with half a crop). Some rain at the end of August was a godsend allowing still green flavours in the grapes to ripen. The high temperatures over summer and during harvest were not unlike 2019, and night-time or early-morning harvesting was beneficial where possible. One upside was that disease pressure was very low, producing healthy fruit, albeit in smaller volumes.
2018 was the last vintage with more typical Loire conditions and character and many lovers of Loire wines will prefer that to the ripe 2019s. Either way, the run of good red vintages continues!
Climatic conditions aside, this is a year to celebrate a Loire success story. Appellation Touraine-Chenonceaux marks its 10th anniversary in 2021. Around 15 producers made the first vintage in 2011, now there are around 60. A credit to the labour of love of those who worked hard for twenty years to establish the new appellation, including, notably, Patricia Denis of Domaine de la Renaudie, and Luc Poullain of Domaine des Echardières, the appellation's president.
Joanna Locke MW
The Symington family, the biggest landowners in the Douro valley, summed up 2020 with the words 'Grit and Reward', after a challenging early season followed by a hot dry summer, including heatwave conditions in June, August and September, and virtually no rain in June and July. These conditions were reflected more or less all over Portugal, so while it is always hard to generalise about vintages in a country with such varied topography and climatic conditions, yields were down for many.
The pandemic meant that there was no foot treading at Quinta do Vesuvio in the Douro for the first time since the Symington family took over the property in 1989 and, indeed, the first time since the winery was installed in 1827. At their Fonte Souto property in north east Alentejo they experienced their most challenging season since they began there in 2017: 'to hurry or to wait' were the options and, in the event, both were required.
We had rather assumed, after a run of three in a row for many, that there would definitely not be a 2019 Vintage Port Declaration. At the time of writing, that no longer seems quite so certain. By the time you are reading this we will know for sure!
Joanna Locke MW
Vintages are rarely a problem here, especially for the rosé where the grapes are picked early. However, the 2020 vintage is worth a mention because the rosé wines are particularly good. The reason is the cool nights in August which kept the grapes tasting crisp and fresh. Many of the wines are also a notch less alcoholic that the 2019s, which makes them more refreshing.
To celebrate this excellent vintage, we have introduced an all-new Exhibition Côtes de Provence Rosé, which I hope members will love.
A few months ago, we hosted a Zoom event with Philippe Guigal. It was a masterful performance on his part. We talked about Côtes-du-Rhône and compared some of the recent vintages, which unusually have all been brilliant. (2020 being no exception. But more on that later after I've had a chance to taste!)
What we didn't cover really was Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the past, Guigal used to buy wines and then raise them in their inimitable way. But now they are landowners there, having bought the superbly well-placed Château Nalys. It is a famous estate with a reputation for whites especially but over many years has not been performing to its full potential. I look on Guigal's project with some real excitement. Just where could this go?
There have been other notable acquisitions. Pierre Fabre of Château Mont-Redon has bought L'Oratoire Saint Martin in Cairanne. This is one of the leading estates where unfortunately there was no succession in the family. Pierre has revolutionised things at Mont-Redon, and we can expect great things from Cairanne.
Spain continues to be a hotbed of fantastic value, especially for reds at both ends of the price spectrum. There is a trend amongst growers to seek vineyards that are north-facing and at higher altitude in order to moderate the warm temperatures. This is a fascinating development in the country's wine scene: you can now find superb red wines with more freshness, subtlety and elegance, offering a contrast to the equally excellent ripe, sun-soaked styles more customary for Spain. The individual tasting notes on our website will make the distinction between them, to help members choose the style of Spanish wine they prefer.
2020 proved a challenging season for Spanish vineyards, with difficult conditions during the spring and at harvest. Neither Rioja nor Ribera del Duero escaped, so the best wines are likely to come from the growers who had the capacity to choose when to pick, and from the winemakers who made strict grape selections. It is still too early to reach a conclusion on the style and quality of the reds given that the wines of these regions are so influenced by barrel maturation. Meanwhile the 2019s, which I'll be tasting soon, are reported as excellent, from both Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
Galicia, the source of many of the whites in our range, is showing very good balance in 2020, particularly those from the albariño grape.