I don’t think anyone would disagree that 2020 has been an exceptional year. Almost without exception every person and every industry has, in some way, been affected by the events of this year. But what about the grapes? Is vintage 2020 going to be any good for wine?
The wine industry is massive and grapes are grown on virtually every continent (little tricky on Antarctica, I understand) so I am not in a position to comment on the entire industry. I do, however, live in France where wine is practically a way of life for the majority of the population.
Every region of this diverse country has a grape variety and, therefore, a wine that is unique to that region. For example, white wines from Burgundy will be chardonnay grapes (think Chablis) but go west towards the Loire Valley and the grapes are much more steely, grown in entirely different soil and will be chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc (think Pouilly Fumé).
The climate across France also varies considerably. The north and all down the west is affected by the Atlantic ocean, the famous wine areas in Bordeaux are pretty much oceanfront. Move to the southeast of Paris and north of the Alps, Champagne and Burgundy enjoy a very continental climate giving warm summers and cold winters. Keep going south towards the Mediterranean and the climate changes again with very hot dry summers.
The south is also protected to the north by either the Alps or the Pyrenees and each mountain range is also famous for a wind that blows down from the high slopes – Mistral from the Alps and La Tramontane in the Pyrenees. Both of these will affect the grape growing season.
On the third Thursday of November each year there is a tradition of releasing the first wine of the new vintage. The Beaujolais Nouveau was the subject of some great marketing back in the 1980’s and that Thursday in November has become known as Beaujolais Day. I remember as a young bleary eyed trainee in a hotel in England having to serve Beaujolais Nouveau at breakfast – it was a thing!
Even now, as restaurateurs we can purchase Beaujolais Nouveau about one week before the release date but are bound not to serve it until the official release. There is an important side to the Beaujolais Nouveau as it gives us the first clue as to the quality of the vintage for the year. This year the wine is described as being light, lively and with good acidity – a good sign. Reds from Beaujolais tend to be quite light.
The overriding factor of vintage 2020 appears to be how early the grapes have been harvested, from mid August in some areas. Almost every wine growing region has reported starting to harvest grapes upto one month earlier than previously. Generally over the past 30 years harvest times have got earlier as the climate has become warmer. In fact climate change is starting to have an impact on the wine industry.
Wet springs followed by extremely hot, dry summers are not helping the vines and this year the Tramontane wind from the Pyrenees has not blown as much and not dried the vines as usual, so there has been an issue with mildew on the grapes. Some winegrowers in France are now starting to pick grapes overnight stating that the day time temperatures are either too hot to work in or that the grapes are not at their optimum for picking when it is so hot.
It would be impossible to write an article at present without mentioning the “C” word. Harvesting has also been affected this year by Covid restrictions. Many winegrowers rely on migrant workers to help pull in the harvest. These workers normally live in communal dormitories and work side by side in the vineyards but with social distancing rules and travel restrictions this has been difficult to achieve. The French authorities also stated that only workers from within the EU could travel to France this year. Fortunately, back in August most of the European borders were open and most farmers were able to employ their seasonal workers.
The second factor this year is that yields are significantly increased by around 6-8% compared to 2019. In a normal year this would be good as long as the quality of the grapes could match the increased yield. However, demand has fallen due to lockdown restrictions and the lack of export. Some winegrowers have even picked grapes early whilst they are still “green” and ditched them in order to give more space to the remaining grapes to mature. The Champagne region has agreed to cut yields this year so that supply does not outstrip demand. Champagne is also predicting that 2020 will be a good vintage.
The fall in demand this year has caused other problems for the winegrowers, many of whom are still holding too much stock from last year. While many wines will improve with age there are a lot produced to be drunk within 18 months. Much of this wine is now headed for distillation and is about to be turned into hand sanitiser! The Spanish government is actually paying around 100m Euros in subsidies for winemakers to ditch their wine! The Spanish harvest has also been much larger than 2019.
All in all vintage 2020 for French wines looks like being a good one, particularly for some of the Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. There may be some bargains to be had if demand continues to stay low unless, of course, you buy Champagne which has deliberately lowered the yield on what looks to be a good year.