South Australia 2020 Vintage Report

The Australian bushfires made headlines across the world in December and January. Though a small number of our producers were tragically affected, only around 1% of Australia’s vineyards were touched by the bushfires and any smoke taint was localised.

Following the well-documented hot and dry period, temperatures really cooled off in February and March. This created the perfect conditions for a long and slow-paced finish to the ripening period and restored 2020 to an average-temperature harvest.

Yields are considerably down this year and it is estimated that the size of the national wine grape crush is around 20% below average. This reduction in yield is largely due to weather factors, such as unsettled weather at flowering in many wine regions.

While quantity is small, the old adage ‘good things come in small packages’ is certainly true and there is a lot of excitement about the quality of the 2020 vintage among our growers in South Australia.

Clare Valley

The Clare Valley was untouched by the bushfires and smoke taint. The challenges that producers faced during the growing season in this region were weather related.

Stephanie Toole of Mount Horrocks reports on how a combination of continued drought conditions, frost in October and hot winds during flowering in November has affected yields, especially for red varieties, which are around 80% down on average. Nevertheless, white varieties fared much better and Stephanie is optimistic about the excellent quality of the Riesling which was hand picked “in perfect conditions” and has resulted in wines which are “generous but elegant with good natural acidity”.

Yields were also down at Grosset, but Jeff Grosset concurs with Stephanie on the exceptional quality of the Riesling harvested which he describes as “outstanding”.

Barossa Valley

The Barossa Valley was also unaffected by the bushfires, but 2020 is reported as the lowest yielding vintage in living memory - around 70% to 80% down on an average vintage. This is largely due to wind and uncharacteristically hot conditions during flowering, with temperatures exceeding 47 degrees Celsius on one day. This destroyed many of the juvenile bunches and severely affected yields.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging to hear John Duval state “If the story of the Barossa 2020 vintage were to have a headline, it would most definitely read ‘quality over quantity’.” Temperatures cooled down in the final stages of the growing season and “the smaller crops enjoyed the more mild conditions and ripened evenly on the vine, enabling intense flavour and structural elements to fully develop”. The John Duval wines are now ageing in barrel and are already showing great promise: “Across all varieties, the wines show bright, exceptionally lifted aromatics, pure fruit expression on the palate, and excellent supporting acidity.”

Similarly, Charles Melton is pleased to report that they have “the best tank of Grenache-based wine we have made in the last 30 years and some superb Shiraz.” However, to put the reduced quantities into perspective, in a normal vintage they would usually work with 30 to 35 individual parcels of wine, this year they have just six parcels to work. Charles explains that many blocks in the Barossa were simply not harvested as “the economics of picking so few berries didn’t add up.”

The Barossa growers that Peter Lehmann work with also brought in lower yields. There are two positives to this: one being that the smaller quantity of fruit is top quality and exceptionally concentrated; the other is the fact that the Peter Lehmann winery was able to support those who lost their wineries to the fires in other regions by offering them the use of their processing and wine storage facilities.

Eden Valley

Further south-east in the Eden Valley, it was a similar story of significantly reduced yields due to frosty, wet and windy conditions in November during flowering and the hot and dry season that followed. However, welcome relief came when rain fell at the end of January, alleviating vine stress just before veraison, and cooler conditions arrived in the final weeks before harvest.

Henschke report that the grapes in both their Eden Valley and Barossa Valley vineyards went through the final stages of ripening in “near-perfect conditions and as a consequence, wine quality (colour, aromatics, flavours and tannin maturity) from this vintage has been optimal and excellent.” Precautionary pre- and post-harvest testing has confirmed that both estate and grower fruit from the Eden and Barossa valleys is free of smoke taint. Expect intensely coloured, well-structured, concentrated and spicy reds and fragrant and balanced whites from the 2020 vintage.

Adelaide Hills

The Adelaide Hills was one of the wine regions affected by the bushfire crisis. A fire which started when extreme winds blew a branch onto power lines on the hottest December day on record burnt through Henschke’s Lenswood Vineyard and the whole crop, around 25% of a normal Henschke vintage, was lost. Stephen, Prue and the family are philosophical about the disaster and are thankful that no one in their team was hurt.

“A most traumatic growing season”, is how 2020 has been described by the team at Shaw + Smith. In late December, the fires burnt through the vineyards of some the growers that they work with and other vineyards were affected by smoke taint which meant significant amounts of fruit had to be rejected. However, it is important to note that not all vineyards were affected and large areas of the Adelaide Hills including the Piccadilly Valley and the southern Adelaide Hills were smoke free.

But even despite the fires, the vintage had not started easily with frosts in September and October and cool, windy weather during flowering in November reducing yields considerably. After the heat of December and January, some much-needed rain fell in early February and cooler temperatures until the harvest provided ideal conditions for ripening for the grapes “that made it through flowering and fires.”

The wines are now in barrel and, though disappointed by the reduced quantities, the team at Shaw + Smith are delighted with the quality. Both the Sauvignon Blanc and the Chardonnay retained high natural acidity and great flavour intensity as a result of the cool finish to the year, and this has prompted the team to use smaller sized oak barrels than usual for the Chardonnay. Similarly, the Pinot Noir is showing “intense fruit and good structure” and the Shiraz, the fruit of new clones that they have started working with (2626 and clones from Best’s 1860s vineyard), is “especially good this year.”

McLaren Vale

There were no bushfires in McLaren Vale and precautionary smoke taint testing confirmed that the entire region’s grapes were smoke-taint free. However, hot northerly winds during flowering impacted fruit set and caused a reduction in yield.

At S.C. Pannell, Grenache is “the star of the vintage”. Having undergone a perfectly slow ripening, due to the drop in temperatures at the end of the growing season, it accumulated great intensity of flavour. “Not yet mainstream” varieties, such as Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola and Aglianico, have fared well this year and it is felt that these heat and drought tolerant varieties may well be the way forward.

At Willunga 100, their old, dry-grown, bushvine Grenache held up exceptionally well to the hot and dry weather, and timely rains in late January gave them the necessary boost to get through the remainder of the season. Cool temperatures in February perfectly slowed the pace of ripening and harvest was around two weeks later than normal. Bunches and berries were smaller than usual and winemaker Skye Salter remarks that as a result quality is excellent, with superb concentration of flavour balanced by naturally high acidity.

We look forward to the arrival of the first of the 2020 wines later this year. Though it was an extraordinary vintage for many reasons, it has resulted in some truly exciting wines.

Picture: Kangaroos in Henschke's Mount Edelstone vineyard