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Vintners Assess a Strange and Deadly Harvest

Vintners Assess a Strange and Deadly Harvest

Kathleen Willcox
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Harvest season is a time for hard work, but also an exuberant celebration. After another year of incredible patience, worry, and attentiveness, the grapes are finally ready to be picked and put into bottle and barrel. But nothing about this harvest season is typical. 

Much of the aberrance is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed almost everything about how we live, work, and play. The most noticeable effects on the wine industry are two-fold.

First, there’s consumption. While off-premise wine sales (wines bought in stores) grew 17.4 percent year-over-year, on-premise sales (wines sold in restaurants and bars) plummeted by 90 percent in the first stages of the pandemic, according to Nielsen. While more people are dining and drinking out now, the impact on small winemakers (the ones you don’t typically find in grocery or convenience stores) has been significant. 

Then, there’s how we can do our jobs now. No one can just report to work—anywhere—without serious hygiene and social-distancing protocols in place. That takes time, a lot of thought, and money. And quite frequently, it means fewer hands in the fields and on the floor doing the hard work.

This year, additional harvest challenges—a historically early harvest in Bordeaux, fears of smoke taint amid wildfires in California, the smallest harvest in Australia in a decade, concern over an unsellable glut in France, Spain, and Italy, to name a few—have put winemakers, simply put, in uncharted territory. We reached out to producers around the world for their assessment of the harvest and for a taste of what wine lovers can expect in the coming months and years from this batch of grapes. 

The challenges winemakers face fall largely into two categories: issues getting wine into the consumers’ hands as planned, and unexpected climatic chaos. Don’t worry: amid the gloom, there’s still a lot to be excited for. 

LOGISTICAL ISSUES

‘Total National Lockdown’ 

Pieter Ferreira, Cellar Master at Graham Beck | Photo Credit: Graham Beck

In 1983, entrepreneur Graham Beck established an estate in the Western Cape town of Robertson. He planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which he believed were ideally suited for the climate and its rich limestone soils. Now, the late Beck’s vision of creating an iconic Cap Classique sparkling wine has been realized, but his brand—and the whole of the South African wine industry—is facing historic and unprecedented external challenges. 

In addition to contending with the challenges of coronavirus, Graham Beck and other South African vintners faced a “total national lockdown on March 26th,” cellar master Pieter Ferreira says. “We were banned in trading and selling wine until they lifted the ban on exports April 12th, which also caused havoc as our ports could not handle the traffic and caused a backlog in shipments.” 

While winemakers are recovering, Wines of South Africa estimates that the ban cost the industry about $406 million

Thankfully, the climate cooperated, and this year’s harvest looks strong. Ferreira reports that “budding was consistently even and initial shoot growth was fast and strong,” and that while strong winds “had a negative impact on the flowering and berry set periods,” temperatures set natural acidity in the berries, and the disease pressure was low. 

From what he saw in the vineyards and cellar, bubble lovers should prime their palates for Graham Beck Brut NV, set to be released in March of 2022. The current vintage is stunning: a blend of 53 percent Chardonnay and 47 percent Pinot Noir, with a lively, focused palate of red fruit, lemon zest, green apples, cream, and toasted biscuits. 

‘Plans have changed’

Photo Credit: Vivanterre

Attempting to maintain normalcy amid the pressures of 2020 is difficult enough, but for a newly-launched natural wine brand like Vivanterre—a partnership between fashion team Rosie and Max Assoulin, winemaker Patrick Bouju (Domaine La Boheme), and wine director Cedric Nicaise (Eleven Madison Park)—it’s almost unimaginable. Bouju says that the hot summer in France’s Auvergne has led to “some ripeness and the potential for higher alcohol than we would like, but there’s structure; it seems overall that this will be a very good, concentrated vintage.”

Because of the small size of the operation (1,000 cases of both Gamay MVB and Contact SGU), the team has quickly established social-distancing regulations. That said, the push to sell their line is intense.

“Obviously, plans for marketing the wine have changed,” says Nicaise. “My world has revolved around restaurants, and our plan was to focus there when we launched. We have shifted to retail, and overall the reception has been amazing, so we’re thankful.

‘No framework for this’ 

Remy Drabkin | Photo Credit: Ben Garvey

Remy Drabkin has been making wine since she was eight years old. At least, in her mind, and by 14, she was in the fields and wineries of the Willamette Valley picking and stomping grapes and picking up vast amounts of knowledge and foresight along the way. She launched her eponymous Italian-focused Remy Wines and the more experimental Three Wives Wines in 2006 in the Dundee Hills of Oregon. This year, she’s launching Black Heart, which allows her to explore the world of méthode champenoise sparkling.

The one thing she didn’t plan for? A worldwide pandemic. 

“Across all of our lines, we produce between 2,500 to 3,000 cases a year,” Drabkin says. “We are laser-focused on growing sustainable grapes, cultivating biodiversity in our fields, and making the best wine we can with a small team. We’re almost completely direct-to-consumer.”

For the first few months of the pandemic, when the winery was shut down completely, Drabkin says they essentially registered zero sales. She says she remade her business plan “60 times in 60 days,” and worked to get every single full-time staffer—five in all—a computer and supplies to work from home. Part-timers were given the opportunity to make commission-based phone sales.

“There’s no framework for anyone when it comes to a crisis like this, so we just made decisions as we could,” Drabkin says. “We’d touch base every day on Zoom, do mindfulness exercises, and check-in with each other as human beings before we got down to work details.”

But as they slowly reopened and returned to the fields and winery—where there had been a break-in, but thankfully, only wine was stolen and no major damage was done—Drabkin is returning her business to solid footing, and despite everything, she’s excited.

“I’ve been working every day pretty much since March, but I love what I do, and not everyone can say that,” she says. “We have strict protocols in place to keep everyone safe, and this year’s harvest, despite everything, is going to be incredible. We’ve had a long summer with some hot days but consistently cool nights. The fruit is nicely set, and I think we’ll get three tons per acre.”

The wine I’ll be looking for from the 2020 harvest will be the Black Heart Sparkling Blanc de Noir, set to hit the shelves next year. This year’s 100 percent estate Pinot Noir, barrel fermented with Champagne yeast in neutral French oak, is dry on the palate, with notes of peaches, rose petals, and wild strawberries. Bonus deliciousness: Drabkin, one of the few LGBTQ+ women owning and operating a winery on the West Coast, and second-term city councilor in the City of McMinnville, is donating 5 percent of every bottle sold to the ACLU in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

CLIMATIC CHAOS

‘Significant uncertainty’ 

11 Minuted Rosé

Alessandra Pasqua, a third-generation vintner at Veneto’s Pasqua Wine Cellars, is, like many of us, still scratching his head at the apocalyptic oddness 2020 has brought our way.

“Whether you blame global warming, karma, or faith, the climate deviated from the norm, creating significant uncertainty in late August. The Veneto faced rain, a hailstorm, and high winds,” Pasqua says. But aside from that distressing blip, “Mother Nature decreed a wonderful growth path, contributing to the development of healthy fruit with an intense color and aromatic profile.”

Look for 2020’s 11 Minutes Rosé, which, thanks to Mother Nature’s cooperation and the blend of native varieties like Corvina and Trebbiano di Lugana, and Syrah and Carmenere, will be out in the spring.

‘Greatest inspiration’ 

Sandra Alves | Photo Credit: Herdade do Esporão

In Alentejo, Portugal, Sandra Alves, winemaker at Herdade do Esporão, can also attest to inexplicably weird weather, in addition to the challenges of COVID.

“We experienced virtually every weather event possible, from frost in April, to hail in June, to sunstroke in July,” Alves recalls. “But nature has always been our greatest inspiration, and right now, it brings us comfort and hope to see nature’s cycles, and to harvest the raw material we find, despite the challenges and uncertainties.” 

From what Alves has seen in the vineyards, the Esporão Reserva Red will be “optimal, with the maximum potential to achieve the classic profile,” which from previous experience is incredibly elegant, complex, and creamy with deep tannins and red-berry fruit flavor. Wine lovers find it in 2022, but can hold it for up to ten years for a softer and lusher experience. 

‘High temperatures,’ ‘water stress’

Like many regions, Sicily saw extreme weather; though for winemakers and those who love extraordinarily complex wines, extreme doesn’t always translate to bad. 

“This year we had little to no rain, a lot of Sirocco and high temperatures,” says Nicoletta Caruso, co-owner of Assuli, Sicilia DOC winery . (Sirocco refers to a warm and humid Mediterranean wind). “While production was reduced by about 15 percent, we do expect to see a greater quality because of the water stress.”

Annamaria Sala, co-owner of Gorghi Tondi in Sicilia DOC, echoes Caruso’s observations, and adding that in August, “better and higher temperature variation between day and night ensured the preservation of excellent acidity, as well as enhanced aromas.”

See Also

Caruso’s native 100 percent Carinda, redolent with citrus fruits and orange blossoms, will be the first flavor of 2020 on the market this spring. Look for the Sorante Nero d’Avola, a native grape producing rich and intense black-fruit flavors. Sala predicts this year’s harvest, which will appear on the market in 2023, will be especially intense and aromatic. 

‘Cold with rain’

The Vineyard | Photo Credit: MonksGate Vineyard

In the Willamette Valley, two winemakers faced the opposite problems of their Sicilian counterparts. Rebecca Moore, winemaker at MonksGate Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton, says that a cold growing season “with rain during bloom resulted in a fair amount of shatter” and crop yields that were down about one-third. 

But the berries that survived are showing the potential for “wonderful ‘acid bombs’ and an interesting potential range of texture. While the quantity will be limited, the quality has the potential of excellence.”

Rachel Rose, winemaker at Bryn Mawr Vineyards in Eola-Amity Hills, reports yield plummets of about 20 percent, with anecdotal tales of “much worse.”

“I have observed a lot of very small, one-seeded berries in the clusters, and the clusters themselves have fewer berries,” says Rose. “The potential for quality is very high if those little berries don’t outpace the rest of the berries too much. Timing is key.”

Harvest at Bryn Mawr Vineyards | Photo Credit: Bryn Mawr Vineyards

Moore is excited for their Barrel Select Pinot Noir, comprised of later-picked fruit. With the “acid bombs” she noted on the vine, she predicts elevated acidity and brightness, and long aging potential. Rose is also looking toward 2020’s Pinot Noirs, which she believes will be “very dense, concentrated, and dark in color. There will be a lot more stems than berries per bunch and I’m considering pulling back on my percentage of whole-cluster inclusion to avoid overly stemmy notes.”

She’s also considering the practicality of destemming the clusters but isn’t positive. Like everything else about 2020, Rose is rolling with it, and ready to pivot if and when she needs to. 

‘Truly excited’

Samra Morris, Alma Rosa’s winemaker, reported—shockingly—very little drama for the Sta. Rita Hills winery.

“Despite the widespread fires in California, our little pocket of the world wasn’t affected,” Morris explains, adding that logistical and climate issues also worked in their favor. 

“The lightning and thunderstorms that affected the Bay Area and Monterey didn’t hit us and were able to harvest fruit under sunny skies with cool and mild days,” she says. “We practiced social distancing and wore masks, but we were able to create space in the winery without a problem.”

The first fruit that wine lovers will see from this harvest will come from the Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay. “The fruit that is coming in is the best I have seen in many years,” Morris says. “We are so excited about the quality of our wines this vintage: density, richness, and complexity that makes Sta. Rita Hills unique.”

‘Chaotic’ 

2020 California Wildfires over Vineyard

All of the above sounds manageable, until suddenly, once again, it isn’t. Blazes in California, Oregon, and Washington have turned deadly, and other vintners I’d hoped to connect with have had their power cut or are fighting to save their homes and vineyards. Ones I checked in with a week ago probably have very different stories to tell now. At least 90 fires were blazing through 13 Western states Thursday, killing at least seven people and doing untold damage to public and private property. 

Wednesday night, I had a Zoom call with Alban Debeaulieu, winemaker at Abbott Claim in Yamhill-Carlton’s AVA of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and the backdrop of his screen was an orange-hued sky. While his pocket of vineyards looks safe—for now—he’s testing the grapes for taint just in case. 

He summarizes the terror and uncertainty of this moment, as he prepares to launch a new brand, by saying that “nature has always been complex and chaotic,” adding that he sees it as his job, perhaps even his calling, to work with, instead of against the chaos. This can be seen through his regenerative and organic farming, hands-off winemaking practices, and an attitude of acceptance and fortitude in the face of potential catastrophe. 

As Dickens surely would have observed, harvest is often the best of times, the worst of times, an age of wisdom, of foolishness, of belief, of incredulity for everyone in the wine business. It’s here, it’s gone, its legacy will live on, and we will sip its bitter and sweet fruits for years to come.