In DO Bizkaiko Txakolina, José Lapazarán had to cope with much more than mildew and coronavirus. His very own annus horribilis started on March 22nd when he was removing weeds in his steep vineyards at the foot on mount Oiz in Muxika. This was going to be his second organic vintage before getting the official certification in 2021. The tractor overturned and trapped his leg. He had to be airlifted by helicopter to the hospital where he stayed for two months. Several surgeries followed and, unable to look after his vines, mildew wreaked havoc to the point that Lapazarán barely picked 60,000kg of grapes compared to the 250,000 kg of any other regular year.
This is a particularly tragic story in a vintage which most producers unanimously describe as extremely challenging and strenuous. “So much work had to be done in the vineyards, that it felt like we were harvesting non-stop from April to October,” says Dominique Roujou, who advises various producers in Galicia as well as in other wine regions across Spain.
A rainy spring set the conditions for widespread outbreaks of mildew, notably in Atlantic (Galicia and the Cantabrian coastline) and Mediterranean areas.
Fernando Mora MW from Bodegas Frontonio, who kept the Spanish wine community entertained during the lockdown with his live talks on Instagram, reconnected with his audience a few days ago to talk about the 2020 vintage. He had to apply treatments against mildew repeatedly because the rain quickly washed away the products they were using. With travel and tastings cancelled, most growers probably agree that they had plenty of time to focus on the vineyards. In contrast, regions that were free of fungal diseases have reported a bumper crop.
Another shared feeling was the desire to get the harvest over with as quickly as possible. Fear of pickers testing positive for Covid was a constant threat.
I joined a small group of wine professionals on a visit to Abadía Retuerta on the first week of October. Winemaker Ángel Anocíbar welcomed us warmly and engaged in animated chat in outdoor spaces, but he drove his own vehicle and didn’t join the group for the tasting. He was determined to take care of his health during the most critical period of the year.
Beyond the human stories and the vagaries of nature, what will the 2020 wines be like in Spain? We have asked producers across the country to share their views with us. This first piece focuses on the northern part of Spain and the Balearic Islands; next week we will explore the southern regions and the Canary Islands.
Fungal diseases, notably mildew and black rot, have caused considerable damage in Galician vineyards over recent years, with some virulent outbreaks in 2020.
Winemaker and consultant Dominique Roujou describes three different stages in the 2020 vintage. Early budding marked the whole cycle; this, combined with the copious spring rainfall, explains the large number of mildew outbreaks at an early stage (“we experienced three months of war”, he notes). The dry summer gave growers a respite and the harvest was trouble-free despite some rainfall in late August. According to Roujou, “climate change has brought almost tropical conditions to Galicia with mild temperatures and constant humidity setting the right conditions for fungal diseases. Things have not improved as a result of treating the vineyards, but due to external factors; we have been subject to the vagaries of climate.”
In Rías Baixas, Eulogio Pomares (Zárate) also reports early mildew outbreaks prior to flowering in the Salnés valley which nevertheless didn’t affect fruit setting. The good weather helped to have comfortable harvest conditions and healthy grapes. “The quality is very good and this vintage is more balanced than 2019; alcohol is a bit lower, and malic acid is down one gram,” he points out. But mildew cast a shadow over the vintage. Pomares has seen many growers lose up to 50% of their grapes. Despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, prices have climbed to €1.5/kg. From a broader perspective, he warns that the ripening process has accelerated in recent years.
In O Rosal, close to the Portuguese border, Julio Sáenz (Lagar de Cervera) describes 2020 as a warm vintage with moderate yields. Grapes ripened fully reducing the malic acid and the acidity is well integrated so malolactic fermentation will not be done this year. “We have aromatic, floral Albariños, with apple and white pear notes instead of green fruit. The wines already show finesse, so there is not much left to be done, really”, he points out.
In Ribeira Sacra, Roujou draws attention to the crispy quality of fruit, although he believes it is a bit early to give more details until malolactic fermentations are finished. Grapes ripened faster in the sunniest areas, but generally speaking and despite the early harvest, he wouldn't describe it as a warm vintage providing that the grapes were picked on time. "2020 is an atypical year; there was considerable vegetative growth, an excess of humidity in spring and two dry summer months before the humidity returned. Grapes do not reflect a cold year neither an early vintage like 2017. The most important thing this year was to be vigilant to avoid over-ripening," he explains.
Raúl Pérez (Castro Candaz), who has added some vineyards in Quiroga to the ones he grows in Chantada in partnership with Rodrigo Méndez, says that this year’s wines are more aromatic albeit slightly reductive. “It’s been an early vintage with ripe grapes and mildew outbreaks on riverside areas.”
In contrast to the constant humidity in coastal areas of Rías Baixas, Roujou thinks that the colder nights of Ribeira Sacra and Ribeiro stopped mildew in its early stages. It was less virulent in Ribeiro at the beginning of the cycle, but it was the biggest threat this year, even though black rot has affected vines in Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra lately.
Grape varieties are traditionally mixed in the vineyards of Ribeiro so the harvest has to be split almost in two parts. According to Roujou, alcohol was higher than initially expected, but acidity is satisfactory and each variety was picked at the right time, including white and red late-ripening grapes. "The quality of both whites and reds is good," he points out.
Fedellos de Couto grows different vineyards across the Bibei, a valley on the boundaries between the appellations of Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. According to Curro Bareño, the cycle in 2020 was long, but far less complicated than 2019. Budding started very early due to the mild temperatures at the end of the winter. There were some strange situations though. Garnacha Tintorera’s cycle (Alicante Bouschet) was halted prematurely and they saw striking differences between sites “as if the microclimate effect was amplified,” Bareño says. Moderate temperatures prevented vines from getting stressed so he describes 2020 as a fresh but concentrated vintage with ripe fruit. “It has been quite easy; fruit has appeared naturally,” he points out.
According to Raúl Pérez, one of the leading producers in the area, 2020 has been a very unusual year. They were expecting average yields, but production dropped around 35%. In his opinion, this figure cannot be attributed solely to mildew. Beyond the early fungal outbreaks, "plants also failed to produce what they were supposed to," he said. After an early harvest, they expected wines with high alcohol, but in the end they turned out to be quite moderate. "It was strange: cold areas reached full ripeness before the warm ones without a logical explanation. I had never harvested Villegas later than Rapolao. Now we are realizing that the wines are highly likeable," Pérez points out. In fact, he has reduced maceration times -usually very long, in his case- by 30%. "We had structured wines with ripe tannins; it didn't make sense to wait any longer."
After a summer with little rain, he also reports healthy grapes with relatively low acidity and a slight tendency to reduction, particularly in cold areas. Pérez mentions the growing pressure of animals, mainly wild boars and deers. “By August we had lost a significant volume of grapes in our highest vineyards in Viariz and Ponferrada. Our most pressing job in these areas now is fencing the vineyards,” he says.
As the 2019 vintage, the wines seem to be almost ready to be drunk and bottled. Pérez thinks that all the worries and uncertainty generated by the pandemic meant that grapes were picked earlier and quicker so this may translate into lighter wines with moderate alcohol levels. Will this mean a changing point for producers who have so far favoured ripeness and extraction?
Gonzalo Iturriaga from Tempos Vega Sicilia says that they have powerful, concentrated, lush reds in Toro. The lack of rainfall in August and September and several heatwaves have pushed alcohol levels to their highest in the last three to four years. Despite the good quality and perfectly ripe skins, at Pintia they are trying to tone down power with softer extraction, shortening malolactic fermentation in barrel and giving more prominence to French oak.
The vintage in Ribera del Duero looks really outstanding, with slight variations depending on who you ask. Peter Sisseck stands among the most enthusiastic. After pressing in mid-October, he describes 2020 Pingus as “truly memorable”.
In La Horra (Burgos), the same village where Sisseck has his Pingus vineyards, Agustín Santolaya (Corimbo) is happy with the extremely fine tannins for Ribera standards. “This will be a very good vintage,” he says, adding that rainfall in September contributed to balance the harvest.
Xavier Ausàs (Ausàs Interpretación) picked 40% of the grapes before the rains, and the rest during a few dry days before the rain returned again. Despite recording 40 to 60 litres in just a few days, Ausàs thinks that the quality was not affected and compares this vintage with 2018 and 2019. “It’s not a fresh vintage, but it won’t be hot either. We have good balance, acidity might be a bit low, but the quality is good. This has been the best part of the year”, he points out, in reference to the extra challenge of dealing with Covid-19.
As for Tempos Vega Sicilia, Gonzalo Iturriaga distinguishes between batches of highly concentrated grapes harvested for Alión before the rain and the ones picked later, more balanced and elegant, with alcohol below 14%, something not seen for a long time. Iturriaga praises the outstanding quality of the grapes grown at high elevation in Moradillo de Roa, a moorland in the Burgos province. The polished tannins remind him of 2016. All the grapes at Vega Sicilia were harvested after the rains because they had not ripened properly before. For Iturriaga, the wines display a balance and finesse similar to 2011.
In contrast, Julio Sáenz says that the rain played against them at Áster, the winery of La Rioja Alta in Ribera del Duero. Clay soils are dominant in Anguix, the village in Burgos where they are based. “We have produced balanced wines, but they lack the final stage of ripeness that must be present in a great vintage,” he says, adding that their top red Finca El Otero won’t be released in 2020.
In Rueda, Luis Hurtado de Amézaga, winemaker at Marqués de Riscal, explains the challeges posed by the sanitary conditions of the grapes in 2020. “Mildew was under control because Verdejo is resistant to this disease, but I had never seen so much damage caused by powdery mildew in my 17 years in the region,” he adds. Young vines planted in fertile soils were severely affected, while dry-farmed vines had to endure cold temperatures during the flowering season resulting in widespread millerandage. “Rueda has moved at two different speeds this year,” Hurtado de Amézaga notes.
Given the rising productive potential of the area and the wealth of new plantations, yields were kept under control at 85% thanks to a reduction established by the Regulatory Board and EU aid to green harvest. According to Hurtado de Amézaga, the best quality and the healthiest grapes are from Segovia, the most elevated area in the appellation, where young vines also performed well. This region, alongside traditional areas in Valladolid with gravely soils, have produced high-quality, structured whites with good acidity.
Rainfall and early budding resulted in a relatively early but somewhat uneven harvest, depending on the areas. Agustín Santolaya from Roda describes three key scenarios: areas severely hit by mildew where yields dropped and grapes were picked early; vineyards damaged by hail, also with reduced yields but outstanding quality; and areas with no significant problems and generous yields. There was an additional Covid -related external factor: "For the first time in the history of the Consejo Regulador, authorized yields were limited to 90%, and as a consequence, a considerable number of grapes were left in the vines," he points out.
In this context, impressions and experiences vary among producers. Some like Carlos Fernández from Tierra in Rioja Alavesa suffered a great deal ("where I was not hit by mildew, I was hit by hail," he lamented at the end of the summer), whereas others like Gonzalo Iturriaga from Tempos Vega Sicilia experienced a little bit of everything. Julio Sáenz from La Rioja Alta, S. A. is very enthusiastic. He thinks 2020 is the best vintage of the last five years, but distinguishes between those who harvested before the rain and those who waited and benefited from the subsequent northern winds and had fully ripe grapes. "They have produced balanced wines with moderate alcohol, good acidity and deep colour; there are fabulous batches to age," he announces.
Organic growers like Roberto Oliván (Tentenublo), on his first year under certification, experienced a challenging vintage. His experience as consultant in Txakoli country has come in handy. “I have found out that fighting mildew is mainly about mathematics and being vigilant; you must act the moment you see the first spot”, he explains. “We even built a software tool to adapt climatic patterns to the conditions for a Txakoli producer”. Oliván waited to pick his grapes until they were properly ripe.
In terms of style, Agustín Santolaya says that wines are expressive, fresh and pleasant to drink. He thinks 2020 is a good vintage with some extraordinary batches yet it lacks the depth of 2019. “There has never been an excellent vintage in Rioja with rainfall levels in excess of 550 mm. and 2020 has registered over 600 mm,” he adds. Santolaya compares this vintage with 2016, another generous year with fine tannins right from the start.
Despite experiencing some mildew issues and picking grapes “in between rain showers”, Gonzalo Iturriaga likes this year’s moderate alcohol, balance and perfectly ripe skins. He also sees less density compared to 2019 but rates 2020 above 2018.
At La Rioja Alta, Julio Sáenz compares 2020 with 2012 and 2016, three hot years that benefited from the cooling effect of the rain that fell at the end of September to achieve balance. His are very good, structured reds, Sáenz says -the finest are from Rioja Alta where they have vineyards destined to their Gran Reserva. He also points out that the introduction of optical sorting machines such as those shown in the photo below has helped them to improve the quality significantly in recent years.
At Contino, Jorge Navascués found it very difficult to decide when to harvest because while grapes tasted great, alcohol levels were unusually low. The first grapes were picked as early as September 2nd managing to have moderate pH levels for Tempranillo and natural freshness. “We have good wines for ageing. This is my best vintage at Contino so far,” he says.
This is one of the few regions which was not severely affected by mildew resulting in medium to high yields, according to winemakers Gonzalo Celayeta from San Martín de Unx in the subarea of Baja Montaña, and Jorge Navascués, who advises Viña Zorzal in Ribera Baja. Both report extremely early harvests with outstanding quality, healthy grapes and very good weather during the picking. September started with high temperatures but they progressively dropped.
Celayeta says his wines are fresh and with well-defined fruit whereas Navascués is very happy with the “spectacular” quality and quantity. “The wines’ natural freshness will define the area’s varietal identity, in contrast with the jammy notes often associated with Garnacha,” he says. Navascués thinks that 2020 is very similar to 2018.
Jorge Navascués is very optimistic about the quality of the wines in the region where he was born. “For me, this is the best vintage of the last five to six years. It was an early harvest but this doesn’t mean that grapes matured too quickly. The high temperatures in February brought budding forward, so the cycle was longer than usual. Producers who were able to find the balance between yields and healthy grapes will make great wines,” he says, adding that quality may be easier to find in 2019 that 2020. For Navascués, the wines don’t fit the style of a hot vintage: “Alcohol is lower, there are floral and scrubland notes and more malic than in previous years.”
Elevated areas in Cariñena have proven to be better as mildew only affected the lower part of the valley. The fungus had very little impact in Calatayud, a mountainous appellation at high elevation. According to Juan Vicente Alcañiz, winemaker at Bodegas San Alejandro, yields were generous. The picture is very much the same in Valdejalón where Fernando Mora MW adds: “Garnacha is prone to millerandage, but flower setting went really well and production exceeded the standards in the area.”
As the grape skins were fully ripe, Mora has been able to ferment bunches whole and extend maceration times -his best wines have not been devatted yet. He reports good acidity, more malic acid than the average for Garnacha and moderate alcohol as grapes were picked relatively early.
Calatayud experienced an extremely early harvest. “For us, it is very unusual to start picking grapes on the second week of September,” Alcañiz points out. After a dry summer, rainfall at the end of September brought natural dilution resulting in fresh, clean, aromatic wines with moderate alcohol and ripe tannins in line with the 2018 vintage.
Josep Sabarich, technical director at Familia Torres with vineyards all over Catalonia, describes similar conditions: an extremely rainy spring and significant damage from mildew followed by powdery mildew (oidium) outbreaks meant unprecedented crop losses. "Catalan appellations report average losses of 30%, but some vineyards were totally devastated and grapes were not harvested." The biggest issue, he thinks, is how to deal with the disparity in the vineyards: "This is a year for selection," he explains. "Those who produce high-end wines and can afford it will have lower yields, but very good quality. As for entry-level wines, we were busy visiting the vineyards in order to classify, sort out batches, make the right blends...". Sabarich thinks this is a cool vintage on the palate, (moderate pH, high malic acid, good acidity and tension). Wines feel ripe on the nose as a result of the high temperatures that brought the harvest forward.
The biggest losses occurred in organically farmed vineyards which account for 33% of the surface under vine in Catalonia, according to Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture. Despite reporting an 80% loss, Juvé Camps, the Cava and still wine producer based in Penedès, will not give up in its commitment to organic farming. The same goes for Albert Costa, the man behind Vall-Llach in Priorat, in his second year of transition to organic farming, who saw production fall from 120,000-100,000 kg to barely 20,000. “I became a father a year ago and I am determined to leave my child a legacy of living soils,” he says.
Sabarich is optimistic in this regard adding that Familia Torres will continue to encourage organic farming among their purveyors paying higher grape prices. “People may be scared right now but looking at things with a certain perspective, it is unlikely that we may experience similar conditions in Mediterranean areas; on the other hand, with Covid-19, this is the best possible year for this to happen,” he points out.
In Penedés, Ton Mata reported a loss of 25% at Recaredo compared with a standard year and 50% less than in 2019 when yields reached 8,000 kg/ha. Macabeo ranks among the poorest performers with barely 3,000 kg/ha. In contrast, Turó d’en Mota was the most consistent vineyard: “It has never failed us; unlike 2018, we didn’t even see mildew here.” Mata says the 2020 wines are aromatic with balanced acidity, but the pH is slightly high., Xarel.lo, which is increasingly present in Recaredo’s vineyards, is proving to be the most resilient variety against extreme conditions, particularly drought. In fact, he anticipates that Reserva Particular 2020 will have more Xarel.lo than Macabeo in the blend.
At Vall-Llach, Albert Costa confirms that Cariñena and Garnacha performed well in such a challenging year in Porrera and Poboleda, the two villages with the highest levels of humidity and strong sea influence (750 mm. of rainfall were recorded compared to 120 mm. in 2019). “Perhaps we all realise that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon might not be that interesting in Priorat in the face of climate change,” he points out. In contrast, Mas de la Rosa, Vall-Llach’s most prized vineyard perched high on the mountain, has produced top quality grapes and good yields even though harvesting began at the end of September, 15 days earlier than 2019 and over a month earlier than in 2013 when picking was delayed to November.
At the other end of the DOQ, in Cellers Scala Dei, Ricard Rofes agrees that this was his quickest, earliest harvest ever; all the grapes were in the cellar by October 10th ("it's the first time in 22 years that I have enjoyed the October 12th bank holiday," he jokes). Rofes considers himself lucky to have maintained yields at the Scala Dei own vineyards thanks to the excellent work of the viticulture team, but suppliers saw a 50% drop. "We are not used to mildew in Priorat; the latest severe outbreak here occurred 40 years ago," he notes. Rofes has clean wines, with fairly low pH, good acidity and concentration. From his point of view, 2020 is almost at the level of the excellent 2016 vintage.
In Empordà, Delfí Sanahuja, winemaker at Castillo de Perelada, enjoyed working in brand new state-of-the-art facilities but faced the challenge of using new equipment in a very difficult year coinciding with organic conversion in the vineyards. Despite losses of 15% in their own vineyards, 20% from suppliers and the wettest harvest in his 28 years in the business ("not only in terms of quantity, but also in terms of persistent moisture"), the final outcome is very good. "I don’t dare say excellent because some wines are slightly alcoholic, but there is good balance because acidity is high. In the end, everything went much better than I had expected," he adds.
In Pla de Bages, Ramón Roqueta from Abadal points out that the lowest and most humid areas where severely affected by mildew with losses of up to 80%, but the highest, well aired plots fared better. The damage was less significant in windy Terra Alta, where the Roqueta family produces Lafou. Yields were higher here and the harvest was comfortable and easy. "I still have some Garnacha Blanca on the vines to produce a late harvest wine", he reveals. Both areas have produced fresh wines, even though acidity was not as high as initially expected.
Like other Mediterranean regions, the harvest was very short in the archipelago. At 4 Kilos (Mallorca), Francesc Grimalt estimates a loss of 40%. Vines were pruned late to increase malic acid but it had an adverse effect as mildew hit their vineyards severely during the flowering period. "It has been an unusual year; the climate seemed to suggest a delayed harvest, but it was finally early", he notes. Despite the setbacks, quality was very good. Grimalt says 2020 is fresher than 2019, with less alcohol, more fruit and less structure, which will result in long-lasting wines.
Dominique Roujou, who advises producers in Mallorca and Ibiza, also reports devastating mildew outbreaks that resulted in great leaf loss and, to a lesser extent, a reduction in the number of bunches.