Louisa Rose Pewsey Vale

Barossa: 2020 Vintage Report & wine reccos to go!

Vintage pic – Louisa Rose, pictured at Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley in 2008, during my visit

I missed my glasses of Pewsey Vale Riesling as I talked vintage 2020 with Louisa Rose on Monday.  But moderation seemed best, when tasked with moderating Wine Australia’s inaugural webinar with such a first rate panel – Rose, Sarah Crowe of Yarra Yering and Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix.

Coincidentally, Rose and I had already had a one-to-one about vintage 2020 in Eden Valley and the Barossa last month, with two vintages of Pewsey Vale The Contours to hand (both reviewed below).  In this post, I focus on our first exchange, but you can catch up with Rose’s and her fellow webinar panellists’ comments here, under the ‘Watch the replay now’ link right at the bottom of the linked page – keep scrolling!

Wine Australia’s Vintage 2020 Webinar, with left to right, top, then bottom: me (moderating), Wine Australia host Emma Symington MW, Sarah Crowe, Louisa Rose & Virginia Willcock

Before they spilled the beans on polar opposite, roller-coaster seasons rainfall-wise in the Yarra Valley and Barossa and, in Willcock’s case, yet another cruisy Margaret River vintage, I invited each winemaker to summarise the key climatic influences on their region.  They eloquently lifted off the page the inter-regional and intra-regional climatic variations as well as influence of vintage in 2020.  I thoroughly recommend watching the video for their insightful commentary and illustrative slides.

Returning to the Barossa and 2020 vintage, below you will find Rose’s/Yalumba’s contributions, followed by insights from Prue and Stephen Henschke (Henschke) and Matt Gant of First Drop, with current release wine recommendations from each.

You can find the Barossa Grape and Wine Association’s generic report on vintage 2020 here (and their extensive archive of past vintage reports (back to 1947!) is collated here).

Yalumba/Pewsey Vale Vintage 2020 report

Before Rose and I spoke, I had suggested that we taste Pewsey Vale The Contours 10 Year Museum Release Reserve Riesling 2009.  Partly because, tasting samples had run out at February’s importer tasting, so I was keen to try it.  But also thinking, being similarly borne of drought conditions, the 2009 might give me a stylistic insight into the 2020s.

Definitive – the cool ripening period

Rose – ever the diplomat – suggested we taste the 2012 Museum Reserve alongside.   And the vintage temperature data she sent in advance highlighted why she considers the 2020 wines will be closer in style to 2020.

You want those cold nights for the vines to stop metabolising, retaining acidity and those aromatics

Whilst confirming 2009 and 2020 suffered from a dry winter and spring, for the Chief Winemaker, the cool ripening period, especially the pronounced diurnal,  in 2012 and 2020, was definitive, producing impressive natural acidity and length in both Riesling vintages.   In fact, if push came to shove (I put Rose on the spot), for her, “cool days are great, but you don’t want cool days, with warm nights, you want cool nights as well.  If I had to choose?  Warmer days and cooler nights – I’d choose that, because you want those cold nights for the vines to stop metabolising, retaining acidity and those aromatics….If temperatures are elevated, there are a lot of enzymes that keep working.”

Water access

A couple of other key factors contributed to the quality of vintage in 2020 too.  First, the January heatwave which, by and large, occured before veraison, she observed, adding “it’s the heatwaves post veraison that really knock the grapes around….” 

We have fairly good gauging on our dam and we eked it [the water] out to make sure that it lasted

Most importantly of all, Pewsey Vale’s water supply held out, despite the heat.  Rose reported that, without the rain to fill the soils and dams (and with Eden Valley’s predominantly shallow soils), a number of vineyards ran out of irrigation water.   “We were lucky,” the winemaker added. “We knew it would be tight and we have fairly good gauging on our dam and we eked it [the water] out to make sure that it lasted.”

Pre-mulching and straw helped moisture levels.  An inch or so of rain on 31 January/1 February couldn’t have fallen at a better time – “if we hadn’t had that, I think we’d have struggled to keep the leaves on right to the end of picking.”  Whilst it wasn’t a deep watering, she explained, it was enough for vine leaves and ground to absorb a little, which just cool things down, stops evaporation for a while. “And it makes everyone feel happy,” she exclaimed, heartfelt.

Low yields

With two years in a row without winter rains to fill up the soils and dams – “a double whammy” – the vines were less fertile around budburst and naturally set low crops, with less potential berries and bunches.  Spring’s extremes did not help.  Howling gales impacted on flowering and fruit set.  Frost also reduced yields.

If it had continued being hot, I don’t know if we could have picked too many grapes at all, because they were very tiny to start and would have continued shrivelling

Very hot weather around Christmas (when, said Rose), berry cells are multiplying, meant berries stayed very small.  Breathing a sigh of relief about the cool ripening conditions after veraison, the winemaker reckons, “if it had continued being hot, I don’t know if we could have picked too many grapes at all, because they were very tiny to start and would have continued shrivelling.”

Yalumba estimates that Riesling was down at around 60% of the average crop.  Overall, she estimates that reds were down 50-60% on normal yields in Yalumba’s vineyards, with Eden Valley hit the hardest. In the Barossa Valley, variation was significant – “everything from almost no crop at all, through to reasonable crop, so our Barossa Valley vineyards, at 60% of average, were at the upper end of the spectrum.”

Rose said Grenache was down to just 30% of normal crop at Yalumba, which highlights the variation between vineyards, given Stephen Henschke’s comments below.

Grape/wine quality

Beautiful, with perfect ripeness, lovely acidity and amazing colour

Delighted with the quality, if not the quantity, Rose described the wines as “beautiful, with perfect ripeness, lovely acidity and amazing colour.”  For whites, we focused on the Rieslings, but you’ll see from the Yalumba Vintage Reports below that Chardonnay and Viognier also excelled.

We fermented cooler by a few degrees, with a lot less skin work

Elaborating on the red wines, which she described as “no shrinking violets,” Rose remarked with plenty of tannins, “a gentle hand was absolutely needed…we fermented cooler by a few degrees, with a lot less skin work, whether plunging or pumping over…the skins were so intense, we didn’t want to over-extract them.”

Here are Yalumba’s April press release and Eden Valley and Barossa vintage reports in full:

Press release – Robert Hill-Smith, Chair

Whilst we were spared damage and taint we won’t forget 2020 in a hurry. First and foremost we know we have made some beautiful wines in what was a perfect finale to the ripening season.

Our winemakers have worked tirelessly to ensure this year is remembered for more than its crises, and our vintage 2020 is one we will be very proud of.

Whilst we have been lucky we feel devastated for our many friends and peers in other regions that dealt with the fires and the aftermath of smoke taint in their vineyards.

On the personal side many winemakers in various regions are financially and emotionally impacted and we hope they can get back in the game very quickly. However I am confident that the success aligned to the “Australian Brand” will not be impacted. Normally at a commercial level this would be profound but circumstances post the bushfire season have delivered a different scenario. Demand has been compromised globally and how this balances inventory to sales is yet to play out… if we had produced an above average national crop, impacts on pricing may have been longer and deeper than ideal. There will still be “distress” stock offered but from a supply perspective it may all sort itself out pre Vintage 2021.

This vintage we have seen the effects of a couple of dry winter/spring and warm early summer weather, with the vines setting significantly lower crops than usual. In the middle of January we were wondering just how many grapes were going to be there in a month. Then the weather started to cool down and we had a mild February, with cool nights – perfect for ripening our crops.

On a brighter note, it seems that quality across the board has been fabulous. For us, bright vibrant wines true to region and variety. We are excited. Our Rieslings and Chardonnays are the best we have seen for few years and our rich and full bodied Shiraz and Cabernets are balanced with lovely natural acids, low pH and real depth of character. In particular the Barossa and Coonawarra 2020 wines will again be sought out early by fans and collectors.

COVID-19 has not compromised harvesting at all. The smaller crop yields and an “Indian Summer” has been perfect in terms of managing intake and peaceful winemaking. We have of course been good citizens and implemented strict protocols early in our vineyards and wineries for social distancing, separation of teams, hygiene and cleaning.

The biggest challenge COVID-19 poses for our company and future of our family business will be the time it will take to reconnect with the various trade channels and consumers when things return to normal. In the meantime managing cash flows through debtor collections and meeting creditor expectations will be a fine balance. The on-trade or HORECA is a space we look to for showcasing premium wines from our folio and that corner of business is going to be problematic in my view.

For the Australian wine industry, winemakers of large, medium and small businesses all share similar challenges…Balance sheets are challenged. Banks are being kind thus far and Government has been supportive to businesses in general. Corporates have the same challenges but different liquidity.

Vintage report Barossa Valley 2020

The 2020 Barossa Valley vintage is shaping up to be a stand-out, with strong indications of very high quality but once again with below average yields.

The growing season started dry and continued that way.  Annual (2018/19) rainfall was 316mm, 66% of the long-term average, and the January to June 2019 rainfall 60% of average.  Winter 2019 rain was a bit more promising with 148mm (88% of average), but the spring 65mm (54%) and summer 40mm (74%) didn’t follow up on the promise as it stayed very dry.  March recorded only 2.8mm (11%) of rain.   The calendar year of 2019 was the driest on record for the Nuriootpa weather station.

Temperatures in the period October to December were all over the place in the Barossa Valley with both extreme hot days and cold nights experienced.  On the 20th November, when many vineyards were flowering a windy 42C was recorded – 2 nights before this there were areas of frost across the Valley. Of the last 16 days of December, 11 were over 35C and 8 over 40C.

Not surprisingly the combination of all of these extremes meant that the vines generally set below average bunch size, and berries remained smaller than normal as they developed.

One saving grace through this period was the cool nights which, with the exception of December, were below average for the entire growing season. The average diurnal temperature variation was higher than average for all months August to January.

January and February finally provided some relief – and probably saved the crop that the vines had managed to hold onto.  January experienced just below (0.7C) average maximum temperature and 1.3C below the average minimum.  Veraison started at the end of January, and just as the grapes started to soften the weather cooled down even further.  Average February maximum temperature was 26.5C – 3C below average, with average minimum temperature 13.4 – 1.2C below the average.  This was as near to perfect, and combined with the 21mm of rain that fell on the 1st February gave many vineyards the ability to slowly ripen their grapes, with flavour and phenological ripening keeping in pace with the sugar development.

Yields varied from vineyard to vineyard and variety to variety, but most are well below average, with early indications that the region could be as much as 50% below ‘normal’.

The good news is that flavours and colours (in reds) and overall quality is exceptional.  Early standout varieties include, but won’t be limited to, Shiraz and Grenache and Cabernet.

Vintage report Eden Valley 2020

A small but beautiful vintage in the Eden Valley.

Rainfall in Eden Valley for winter 2019 totalled 249mm, slightly higher than winter 2018 total of 226mm, although still dry.  The pattern of rain was also important as we experienced lots of small falls, that didn’t really soak into soils or fill irrigation dams.  Rainfall dropped significantly through spring, reaching only 63% of the long term average. This trend continued into summer with the growing season rainfall amounting to 125mm or 67% of the average; the driest growing season since 2009.

The low rainfall throughout winter 2018, the 2018/19 season and 2019 winter resulted in many growers not having enough surface water runoff to fill their storage dams prior to spring 2019. This placed significant pressure on the irrigation scheduling to ensure vines had adequate soil moisture to grow and ripen fruit whilst also maintaining a healthy canopy.

October 2019 had a maximum temperature 2.2°C warmer than average whilst December was 3.8°C warmer than average. The October high was driven by a number of days above 30°C which is unusual for that time of year. Furthermore, December recorded 9 days where the mercury exceeded 35°C, in two separate heatwave events lasting 5 and 4 days respectively. December the 20th recorded a stifling 42°C. December 2019 was the hottest December on record. However, much milder conditions were recorded for the remainder of the growing season and through veraison with mean maximum temperatures being below average.

November was 1.5°C cooler than average for both maximum and minimum, with 22 days where the minimum was below 10°C.   There was one day – the 20th November – during flowering that reached 39.5C.

The saving grace for Eden Valley was the cooler than average minimum temperatures.  With the exception of October and December these were lower than average through the growing season.  Even for October and December the average diurnal temperature difference was greater than average.

February was unusually cool with maximum temperatures nearly 3 (2.9)C below average with temperatures in the low teens for much of the month. Cooler than average days and nights continued into March, providing perfect ripening conditions.

2019/20 was a particularly challenging year for many Eden Valley growers, with low water storage, windy conditions at flowering and a hot, dry start to the growing season. This resulted in poor yields as a result of low bunch weights.

Those grapes that did set and ripen are of excellent quality.  The significant rain (15-40mm ) that fell on the first of February, combined with the cooler weather experienced after veraison freshened the vines and helped maintain natural acidity as well as the delicate aromatics and flavours. The wines are of exceptional quality, the white wines, particularly Riesling, Viognier and Chardonnay are fine and intense.  Reds are deeply coloured and perfumed.

Tasting notes

Pewsey Vale The Contours Rieslings – 5 and 10 year museum releases

Pewsey Vale The Contours Museum Reserve Riesling 2012

The Contours comes from a south-facing (cooler) old vine parcel, planted in 1965 at 440-490m.   Showing some bottle age build and complexity yet, reflecting the cool ripening period, the 2012 remains remarkably light on its feet, with lifted florals, kaffir lime and tea tree notes to nose and lemon and lime palate.  With slow burn intensity, it has lovely line, length, levity and elegance.  Plenty in the tank.   This tasting reinforced why it was my top-scorer at a vertical tasting to celebrate the launch of Pewsey Vale 1961 Riesling (reported here for Decanter Premium).  12.5%  £24.70 at Field & Fawcett

Pewsey Vale The Contours 10 Year Museum Reserve Riesling 2009

A broader, weightier Riesling, with more savoury, umami characters, reflecting not just (3 year’s extra) bottle age, but also the warmer year.  Toast and oyster shell notes to the nose and palate, with its rich lemon curd and salted limes.  The saltiness (oyster shell and salted limes) together with rolling acidity make for animation and balance.  Relatively corpulent, but retains line and length, with a textural crushed oyster shell/mineral finish. Delicious, if not as elegant as the 2012.  12.5%  RRP £40; imported by John Fells.

Henschke Vintage 2020 report

Zoom Henschke Hill of Grace launch with Prue and Stephen Henschke

Whilst Stephen and Prue Henschke are similarly thrilled with the quality of their 2020 wines, the rub is yields – “a pitiful crop,” sighed Prue.

A pitiful crop

Matthew Jukes and I audibly gasped during a Zoom tasting to mark the launch of Henschke Hill of Grace 2015 (reported here) when the couple revealed that they were down 80-90% on Shiraz.  Prue remarked on “sparse” bunches, “with maybe 30 (3, interjected Stephen) not 100 berries,” because fruit set was so bad or frosted off, with “just rats tails.”  Stephen recounted walking past panel after panel without bunches at Mount Edelstone.

Referring to the double whammy droughts in 2019 and 2020, he explained that, even with all the soil improvements from biodynamic cultivation, the organic matter dries too, “so it doesn’t get you through when there is very little rain through winter and no water in the dams.”

Rolling her eyes, Prue recounted the rollercoaster of events that culminated in such swingeing yield reductions, including the hot October, frost, hail and drizzling rain, which affected flowering and fruit-set.  Then December was hot and windy.

The Shiraz is really spicy and vibrant

As for the wines, they concur with Rose on Riesling, which they described as “glorious” thanks to the cool close to the season (they didn’t lose as much Riesling or Pinot Gris).  For reds, Stephen confirmed that Shiraz is “really spicy and vibrant” – “high acidity” added Prue, with a wry laugh.   Stephen was relieved that, with such small berries, the tannins were not dried out.

Whilst Shiraz was scythed, Grenache and Mataro performed much better, observed Stephen.  Speculating about these grapes’ increasing relevance given climate change concerns, the winemaker also put El Nino in the dock, under whose influence, he opined, “all the rain is going away from Australia – our last good rains were in 2017.”

Tasting notes

Henschke Hill of Grace 2015 (Eden Valley)

Thank goodness there were decent yields in 2015 and, indeed, 2016, 2017 and 2018 were, said Stephen, beautiful vintages.  Here’s my tasting note from my earlier post, which also includes my review of Mount Edelstone, Cyril Cabernet Sauvignon and Keyneton Euphonium 2015.  The Hill of Grace 2015 is deep, like the Mount Edelstone, but more introspective, seemingly drier, with a covert power, which becomes more pronounced over the three days.  The signature five spice is there, with star anise most prominent on first taste.  With time in glass, brooding, darker black cardamom.  Dried sage, bay leaf, tea leaf and fine crushed black pepper follow through in the mouth, with penetrating fresh blackcurrant,  blackberry and plum, with hints of malt, milk chocolate and vanilla oak.  Well-defined, with incisive acidity and a fine but firm underlying fretwork of tannins, it permeates the palate, cleaving close – less ‘aromatised’ than the ethereal Mount Edelstone. Keeping its powder dry for the long haul, the layers are evident, but more compact, giving an impression of density, though it is far from dense.  Like the Mount Edelstone, it is beautifully balanced and super-long, the tannins keeping pace with the fruit, the acidity an undertow, paddling, without breaking the surface. Going back, it seemingly built in the glass each day, becoming velvety, developing in spiciness and pungency too (black cardamom, liquorice, mulch), as if to underscore its power and age-ability.  Whilst the Mount Edelstone’s siren song beckons, Hill of Grace 2015 especially will benefit from time in bottle. I have little doubt it will age for the expected 30 plus years.  This stunning Shiraz – deemed ‘exceptional’ – was harvested between 17-26 March.  The wine was matured in 86% French and 14% American (33% new, 67% seasoned) hogsheads for 18 months, prior to blending and bottling.  RRP £540.00 Berry Bros RuddHedonismPhilglas & SwiggotLuviansOld Bridge WinesNoel Young & Oz Wines.

First Drop Vintage 2020 report

Describing it as “[C]ertainly a challenging harvest,” First Drop’s Matt Gant’s comments echo the others on the impact of the drought and site variability.  Here is his report:

“A second year in a row of low rainfall through winter and spring meant for low and variable yields across all three regions [First Drop sources from the Barossa, Adelaide Hills & McLaren Vale]. The variable set was followed by a variable and protracted veraison, which pushed ripening back. Tannin development lagged behind flavour development, but a cooler February and March allowed the necessary hang time for the former to catch up.

That being said this was a difficult season to decide when to pick given the variability within each vineyard. Often there was an equally good argument not to pick as there was to pick. It certainly wasn’t clear cut, but on the whole I think we made some good decisions.

The stand out this harvest has been Eden Valley Shiraz, where veraison was quicker and more uniform

And the stand out this harvest has been Eden Valley Shiraz, where veraison was quicker and more uniform, and ripening occurred in regulation thanks to the cooler conditions in February and March.  Nevertheless Shiraz from the valley floor has good intensity and structure, and time will tell how these wines evolve.

All in all, we’re happy with the booze we’ve made, but 2020 was a rollercoaster with drought, bushfires and a global pandemic presenting us with a raft a challenges.”

Tasting notes

First Drop – milking Barossa Shiraz

As the playful labels and monikers suggest, First Drop’s founders – Matt Gant & John Retsas – probably wouldn’t have got the milk monitor badge at school.  But the wines are cheeky and serious.  Carefully sourced and thoughtfully made, with entertaining you and your taste buds in mind.

These two Barossa Shirazes certainly make for an interesting contrast – beyond the year (I think the Liebfraumilk is a one off, so I’ll perhaps never know for sure though, as Rose pointed out during the Wine Australia webinar, the Barossa does have very diverse terroir).

First Drop Mother’s Milk Shiraz 2018 (Barossa)

The lighter of the two in terms of shade (crimson) and opacity, with an emphatically primary, emphatically red fruit bias to its fresh fruits of the forest  – cherry, berry and currant, with juniper among those berries.  The sweet but vibrant fruit is gently laced with creamy milk and dark chocolate and insinuating dried (strawberry gum) eucalyptus, black olive and leather.  The tannins are (deliberately) barely there, but the acidity is quite firm, so I’d still pair it with some protein.  It hails from three vineyards, two in the northern Barossa Valley, north of Seppeltsfield (285m above sea level on clay over limestone) and Kalima (312m above sea level on red clay with sand and ironstone) and one in Eden Valley (460m above sea level on clay over ironstone and quartz).  The wine was aged for 12 months on lies in three and four-year-old French oak hogsheads. 14.5%  £17.90 at The Sampler

First Drop Liebfraumilk Barossa Valley Shiraz 2017 (Barossa Valley)

Check out this page for the story behind the name.  A burgundy hue, distinctly black-fruited, but less buoyant, more brooding than Mother’s Milk.  Riper, spicier, with texture to the tannins, the liquorice-edged fruit cleaving close to the palate.  Not so much flesh, more fruit leather, with a certain intensity and savouriness. The oak influence  – mocha/espresso, with a smoky char – is assertive right now.   A play of eucalyptus lends a cooler menthol note to the finish.  Opening up, suggestions of black cherry jam notes emerge though, tapering, the finish is taut, held back.  Quite the contrasting pair.  Mother’s Milk and Liebfraumilch share one vineyard source – Darren’s vineyard near Seppeltsfield (31%), however the highest percentage of Liebfraumilch comes from Ebenezer  (41%) at 296m above sea level on deep red clay.  The balance is from Greenock, at 330m above sea level on clay with ironstone.  15%

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  1. Kieron Lomax

    Great wrap-up on one of the most challenging vintages in living memory (for so many reasons).
    Thanks for sharing the stories and more about the amazing wines that resulted!

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