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“Smallest vintage in living memory” delights Oz winemakers, if not accountants

Published:  16 June, 2020

Off the back of a “rollercoaster ride”, variously involving frosts, drought, heatwaves, horrendous bush fires and finally the disruption of Covid-19, Australia’s 2020 vintage is expected to produce some “sensational wines” from a very low yielding crush.

That was the message from a Wine Australia webinar yesterday (15 June), bringing together winemakers from three key regions across the continent, ahead of the official Wine Australia report on the national crush.

“[The 2020 vintage] is looking like the “smallest yielding vintage in living memory, at roughly 1.4 million to 1.5 million tonnes against the average of 1.75 million tonnes,” said host and Australian specialist Sarah Ahmed.

“The winemakers I've been speaking with countrywide, and with us today, expect to produce some sensational wines. The great news is that with low yields there are concentrated flavours.”

Despite representation from three regions spanning 3,000km, from South Australia’s Barossa and Yarra Valley to Margaret River in Western Australia, there were common themes to the 2020 crush.

Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix described 2020 as “a phenomenal” vintage for Margaret River, saying that while there were no extreme conditions, the ripening period was “extremely consistent”, with early ripening, low yields (down 5% to 30%) and coolish conditions helping retain good acidity, “exposing the nuances of the vintage”.

“This is not a great vintage for accountants, but a beautiful vintage for winemakers,” said Willcock.

In Barossa, which was largely unaffected by smoke from the bush fires, Yalumba’s Louisa Rose said that 2020 had been “a rollercoaster vintage”, showcasing the differences between regions and sub-regions, with yields in some vineyards down 50%, but delivering an intensity to the wines.

“Refreshing rain” in January and at the beginning of February, along with cool nights in March, contributed to a “beautiful” cool ripening period post-Veraison, with grapes harvested later than normal, with “excellent acidity and intensity” in the wines.

“The skin to juice ration was very high and if care hadn’t been taken those wines could have been quite extracted, so we went for less extraction, softer tannins and listened to the vintage,” said Rose.

Sarah Crowe at Yarra Yering in Yarra Valley also spoke of a “much cooler year”, saying she was concerned that there wouldn’t be the concentration to carry a lot of new oak, meaning she “backed right off, getting a beautiful balance” in the wines, with an elegance reminiscent of the 1990s.

Asked about the impact of a nationally low yielding vintage on prices, Willcock suggested that given the general economic outlook, when the 2020 wines are released over the coming 12 months and more, the effects of the short harvest could well meet the needs of the market.

“One of the contingencies for us is that we will be making slightly less of our premium wines, to allow more of the affordable wines, but of exceptional quality,” she said.

“That is a sacrifice for us but it’s all about survival in an unknown global economic climate going forward. So I’d like to think we are not going to hurt anyone out there, and it’s a social justice to make sure people can only drink the greatest wines.”

Small but – in many cases - beautifully formed, was the panel’s consensus, whetting the appetite for the releases of what generally looks to be an elegant and balanced vintage born of a memorable Australian winemaking year.