Australia: an update on the 2020 vintage

We were saddened, but not surprised, to receive a note from Tim Kirk of Clonakilla earlier this week which confirmed that he won’t be making any wine from the 2020 vintage due to smoke taint. It is disheartening when a farmer’s entire year’s work is wiped out by an unavoidable act of nature, but anyone following the Australian bush fires in December and January will have known that Canberra (which is less than 50 km south of Clonakilla) was enveloped by smoke for a prolonged period of time. Tim’s worst fears were confirmed when the analysis of his grapes showed high levels of smoke marker compounds, which meant the wines would, without doubt, be tainted. He had no choice but to abandon the vintage.

The damage done by smoke taint was illustrated again this week when Tolpuddle Vineyard announced that it would not bottle a 2019 Pinot Noir, as grapes from some of the best performing parts of the vineyard had picked up smoke taint during the 2019 growing season. “One of the problems with low levels of smoke taint is that it can be imperceptible in the fruit, and in the young wine, but can then become apparent after a few months. It was not until late in 2019 that we started to see low levels of taint in some batches of Tolpuddle Vineyard Pinot Noir,” they explained. Dawson James also made the decision not to bottle a 2019 Pinot Noir. Both wineries will, however, release a 2019 Chardonnay (the juice does not come into contact with the skins during the winemaking, so there is no opportunity for the transmission of smoke taint to the finished wine).

There are those who have already written off the 2020 vintage in Australia because of the intensity of the bush fires they saw on television. But as we know, Australia is a vast and varied country. Clonakilla is about the same distance from McLaren Vale as Reims is from Florence. If there were bush fires in Chianti, you wouldn’t expect the vineyards of the Côte des Blancs to be affected. Just as the vintage varies across Australia, especially for regional specialists like our producers, so we expect the extent of smoke taint to vary, as fires were quite localised.

Many will have read that Henschke was affected by the fires in the Adelaide Hills. Here, the damage was done by flames rather than smoke. As the fires took place prior to véraison, it is felt that smoke taint won’t be a big problem for red grapes in the Hills. “We are only just at the point where the grapes are ripe enough to be sampled and tested for smoke taint,” say Shaw + Smith, “We think that we will make between 50 to 80% of our normal volumes.”  

The weather has now turned mild, and there was some welcome rain last week, so there is optimism regarding quality. “The fruit looks good in McLaren Vale,” says Steve Pannell, “early testing for smoke taint has returned a negative result. We need more of the current cool weather to get the hang time and development of flavour. The interesting point is late ripening, which is a real positive.”

This optimism is echoed by Nick Farr of By Farr in Geelong, who talks of “an incredible finish to the season. We had another 20mm of rain…and cool to mild temperatures for the next 14 days.  It is finishing off perfectly.” Likewise, in the Yarra Valley, Phil Sexton of Giant Steps says that their vintage is currently two weeks behind average following the cool to moderate season. “This year the Yarra Valley has certainly confirmed its reputation for being a cool, cool region, especially on the higher slopes, where our vineyards are situated.”

In the Clare Valley, Jeff Grosset says “the crop is small due to the lack of rain.” He says there were no fires near the Clare, so there is no chance of smoke influence in the vineyards. “Quality, especially in the case of our Riesling, should be outstanding,” he sums up.

We’ll keep a watchful eye on the harvest in Australia, as much will change over the next few months. But there seems little doubt that some excellent wines will be made. We’ll just need to make sure that any sweeping generalisations about smoke taint are countered by the facts from specific regions and vineyards. As Michael Hill Smith says, “Good wine will be made this year – just not sure how much.”

Photo credit: Shaw + Smith