wakefield estate

Clare Valley: 2020 Vintage Report & wine reccos to go!

Wakefield Wines Clare Valley, photo credit Wakefield Wines

Last month, Mitchell Taylor, MD of Wakefield Wines, presented a comprehensive low down about the challenges and opportunities of the 2020 vintage in a zoom event, organised by the producer’s UK importer Louis Latour.  I followed up with him about the important role of Wakefield’s new irrigation management system and asked Jim Barry Wines, Mount Horrocks & Grosset Wines for their take on the Clare Valley 2020 vintage.

Starting with Wakefield, you’ll find Clare Valley 2020 vintage insights from each producer below, together with my tasting note on a current UK release, with stockist details for each producer.

Australia’s smallest vintage in living memory

In summary, fruit quality was excellent, even exceptional, but quantity was well down, especially for red wines.  The low yields are a now familiar tune for this vintage. This week, Rob Geddes reported in Vino Joy News that the 2020 vintage is Australia’s “smallest vintage in living memory,” at 1.4-1.5 million tons, against the average of 1.75 million tons.

Wakefield Wines – Clare Valley 2020 vintage report

Clinton, Bill, Mitch & Justin Taylor of Wakefield Wines; photo credit Wakefield Wines

We’ve never seen such intense colours, such great textures and tannin structures in our wines, so we believe this could be one of the best ever

Overall, Wakefield was down 60% on estate fruit but, confirmed Taylor, Shiraz (its biggest production grape) and Cabernet (which makes its new flagship wine, The Legacy) were probably down more than 60%.  With red wines very much at the heart of the operation for Wakefield Wines, or Taylor’s as it’s known Down Under, 2020’s substantial yield reductions would have been far from ideal.

I had assumed that the on-going drought was the major culprit, but apparently fruit set was the bigger challenge.  Attributing it to climate change, “with very, very cool nights in December,” which resulted in ‘hen and chicken’ and bunches “not filling out,” Taylor described finding a really good bunch for the reds as “quite a rare thing.”  Bunches of Riesling and Chardonnay, on the other hand, “looked good and full,” he added.

Our 51st vintage and our driest year on record – we only had 230mm for the whole year 

The upside?  “We’ve never seen such intense colours, such great textures and tannin structures in our wines, so we believe this could be one of the best ever,” said Taylor.  Quite an achievement in a year which, he reported, “was our 51st vintage and our driest year on record – we only had 230mm for the whole year.”     He reckons that reports of up to 80% losses by ABC are probably attributable to the drought conditions, since other growers would have run out of water.  Wakefield, on the other hand,  mitigated this double whammy of poor fruit set and drought, benefiting from access to water, both from the Wakefield river (which runs through the property) and Murray river water.

Lots of night-time irrigation and working our soil probes very well really kept the vines in great balance

Taylor reported that “lots of night-time irrigation and working our soil probes very well really kept the vines in great balance,” doubtless, aided by the cool (if dry) conditions from February, which also helped to harvest each variety at optimal ripeness. The MD must have breathed a sigh of relief about making a substantial investment in a new drip irrigation management system (TalGil’s Dream2).  Commissioned in the spring of the 2019/20 season, he observed, “water is such a rare commodity and we could monitor it really significantly, to give the right water at the right time.”

When I followed up about this, Wakefield’s Viticulture Manager, Peter Rogge, gave me chapter and verse on how the Dream2 has, in keeping with its name, been the answer to their dreams, having “revolutionised the drip irrigation application, management and sequencing within our property.”  Essentially, it means there is now the option to activate the drip irrigation system on site, or remotely by an app (from anywhere in the world) meaning, Rogge explained, “we can activate it at night, outside of peak energy hours, without utilising significant manual labour, which also helps us reduce evaporative losses whilst ensuring better cooling of the rootzone. Secondly, the live viewing feature of the technology means that reporting and measuring of drip irrigation [via 20 sensors across the property] is a benefit to the previous, manually focussed regime,”  allowing him to plan more strategically and sustainably than ever before.

Here is Taylor’s take on Wakefield’s flagship varieties. Chardonnay in 2020 “looks really good, with really good textural structure to it.” Shiraz in 2020 “is looking terrific – the colours and extraction is fantastic, with full flavours and lots of structure to work with.”  He reckons yields averaged 1-2t/acre or 2-4t/ha and is “certain” that 2020 will be right up there with 2016, with “length, structure and fullness of palate all the way through.”

It will be a sensational vintage

As for the Cabernet Sauvignon, his comparison is with 1998 – another  low yielding year, but with great ripeness and balance.   Being “very low yielding,” he reported it is, as usual, rich in tannins, “with great depth, very, very intense.”  In six months, he hopes to start to see some of the beautiful flavour characteristics come through, but is confident “it will be a sensational vintage.”

Wakefield Estate St Andrews Shiraz 2016 (Clare Valley)

Tasted in September last year, following a Cabernet-Sauvignon tasting culminating in the maiden release of the £550 Wakefield The Legacy 2014 (reported here), it held up well!  Mitchell Taylor reckons the 2020 will be up there with the 2016, in which case expect a full-bodied Shiraz, with the structure and brooding persistence to lend keen focus and length to the palate, despite its alcohol which, like the oak, is worn well.   It reveals Blackforest Gateaux-like dark, loamy chocolate and mocha-edged black cherry and berry, putting me in mind of the Barossa.  But the structure is different.  Firmer, with a tighter core of fruit, lifted violets and more angular acidity.  It will reward cellaring for a few years and keep for a decade more.  The de-stemmed fruit was fermented in headless barrels, hand-plunged twice daily during fermentation, then soaked on skins for a further 2 weeks. It was pressed, then returned to the barrels for malolactic fermentation, then racked off lees, blended and the resulting wine then aged in water-bent American oak barrels and for 20 months.  15% £35 at Oz Wines, £37.50 at Weavers Wines

Jim Barry Wines – Clare Valley 2020 vintage report

The Barry family, (l to r) Sam & Millie Barry, Olivia Barry, Peter & Sue Barry, Tom and Olivia Barry photo credit Jim Barry Wines

In the thick of writing up an impressive five decade vertical of Jim Barry Wines Rieslings for The World of Fine Wine last month, I was delighted to hear that Riesling was a strength of the year and, relatively speaking, less affected quantity-wise than the reds.  Here is Chief Winemaker Tom Barry’s report in full:

Low yields but wines of extremely high quality

“The 2020 Clare Valley vintage is highlighted by low yields but wines of extremely high quality.

The Clare Valley had a dry growing season after receiving below average winter rains. This meant that vineyards across the region went into the growing season with low soil moisture. Wineries started irrigating earlier to ensure the soil profile remained wet.

There was some frost around the area that affected vineyards in the North and South of the Valley.  Clare also had a warm and windy start to November which affected flowering in reds and later ripening whites.

It was very mild until harvest with February 3 degrees below average

Once veraison in Riesling started (which was late January), it was very mild until harvest with February 3 degrees below average. This enabled wineries to hold fruit on the vine for longer whilst retaining the natural acidity.

Whites had very little sun exposure which is fantastic for Riesling and the reds had very little dimpling which meant a retention of fresh flavours.

The wines look fresh and vibrant

The wines look fresh and vibrant due to this cool ripening period.

As for yields the Riesling were down about 30% and reds around 50-60%.”

Jim Barry The Florita Riesling 2016 (Watervale, Clare Valley)

This was my highest scorer in an impressive Jim Barry Riesling vertical last September, featuring 20 wines over five decades.  I just loved its unerring focus and mineral-sluiced (quinine) palate, with classic lime – a small, punchy, ever so concentrated, fresh one.  Clear as a bell, this is one cool customer from the vines which produced the celebrated Leo Buring Rieslings made by John Vickery.  Jim Barry’s The Florita brand has become an icon in its own right.  11.3%  £28.95 at Vintriloquy, £29.95 at Hic

Mount Horrocks – Clare Valley 2020 vintage report

Mount Horrocks’ Stephanie Tooles with her son Alexander

Stephanie Toole of Mount Horrocks is similarly impressed with the Riesling in 2020, including ‘CC,’ her incisive Cordon Cut sweetie.  Shiraz was another story – Toole usually makes a savoury, spicy whole bunch fermented example but, adapting to 2020, made a fleet of foot (her, and I suspect, the wine) Shiraz rosé.  Here is her report:

The Riesling came in beautifully…CC looks fabulous

“After frost in October, wind right on flowering in November and two years of drought, we weren’t expecting a big harvest!  We escaped the fires and smoke taint.  So for Mount Horrocks, the Riesling came in beautifully, about 50% down but really lovely quality. CC looks fabulous but again very limited. 

I am around 60% down on average, maybe more

I won’t make a shiraz this year as the fruit set was so bad I didn’t think it would result in a quality wine, so rose it is albeit a tiny quantity. 

I made small quantities of cabernet, nero and semi.  Probably only enough to keep me going at cellar door when we eventually re-open although they are all tucked away in oak at the moment.  Overall I would say I am around 60% down on average, maybe more.”

Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling 2019 (Watervale, Clare Valley)

A perfectly enticing nose, classic Watervale, with lifted florals – talc, musk and the shimmering mica minerality I often find in this wine (I guess the liveliness – ‘pops’ of crystalline acidity is part of this sensation).  Dancing, very long, with back-palate carry, it is simultaneously very pretty and very serious.  A great each way bet from this certified organic vineyard!  12.5%  £20.05 at Vinum

Grosset Wines – Clare Valley 2020 vintage report

Jeff Grosset with daughter Georgina

Grosset Wines’ Jeff Grosset also highlights the scarcity of water, which torpedoed profitability in 2020.  Thankfully, he (and we, for sure) will find compensation in the quality, with “delicious” wines in the offing.  Below is his report.

This is the lowest yielding year ever for us

“Whites taste beautiful especially riesling; very small bunches and berries meant crops down 60% from ‘normal’ (whatever that means now) or more to the point, when compared to the last five years excluding 2019 which was also low.

This is the lowest yielding year ever for us and the lowest tonnage crush for Grosset in three decades, and it’s more like 50% down on white and 80% down on red, which I think is region-wide.

There was no fire close to us so no chance of any influence of smoke on our wines

Crops are down dramatically because of lack of rain in winter and through the growing season, plus some variable weather at critical times (flowering, set) added to the drama.  There was no fire close to us, so no chance of any influence of smoke on our wines.

We do not have enough water to produce adequate yields to be profitable in a season like this

We are continuing to mitigate the downside of what we are facing in terms of weather. In fact, this is working surprisingly well in terms of wine quality. The Clare Valley is ideal to pursue organics and biodynamics as we are now doing. The issue is simply that we do not have enough water to produce adequate yields to be profitable in a season like this, but we do have some delicious wines to sell!”

Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2019 (Polish Hill River, Clare Valley)

I found the 2019 unusually expressive on the nose (that used to be the preserve of Grosset’s Springvale Riesling from Watervale).  It reveals kaffir lime to the nose, followed by a ricochet of lip-smacking, juicy, zingy lime, which snares the saliva buds from the get go.  Then a swift gear change and you feel the G[rosset?]-force – well, really the Polish Hill-force.  That sense of chalky, minerality/dry extract – the ‘hard rock’ slatey soils and thicker skins of this certified organic vineyard’s small berries –  asserting themselves on the palate and locking it down.  ‘Straight through to the keeper,’ it whistles along at a rate of knots, the finish firm, with scalpel-like focus and penetration!  12.5% £30.28 at BBR.

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