By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 11 April 2020
Harvest-time is usually one of the most sociable and celebratory times of the year.
Not so far in 2020 vintage. Vine growers across the southern hemisphere, from New Zealand to Chile, went into lockdown with social distancing restrictions in the midst of harvest, causing great stress and challenges for all.
Not least in South Africa, who began their 21-day lockdown at midnight 26 March with the government announcing that harvesting and cellarwork must cease - with 30,000 tons of grapes still left on the vine. After delicate negotiations, wineries were allowed to continue with strict social distancing, but the ban on alcohol sales and exports continued.
“This is so unprecedented and unexpected – people are in shock”, says Carolyn Martin of Creation Wines in Western Cape’s Hemel-en-Aarde valley (her husband Jean-Claude and son Glenn pictured above during vintage 2020). “There was no way this vintage could be wasted, the grapes are exquisite, one of the best years in the vineyards we have ever seen”.
One of the biggest challenges has been working the vintage using social distancing with skeleton staff. “One of our interns is stuck in New Zealand, another had to return to Germany to his parents vineyard due to the absence of workers there”, says Martin.
Rijk Melck (pictured above), owner of Muratie Wine Farm, is a qualified GP. “This is devastating for our wine industry, but as a doctor I think we are in for a difficult time here. Education is key, but lacking. I hope the virus will not do what it did to Spain in the townships amongst the 20% immune-compromised”, says Melck.
In New Zealand with wine a $2 billion export earner, alcohol was deemed essential business and vintage allowed to proceed. “We have a 5-page document with incredibly strict work processes to prevent cross contamination to adhere to, with audit visits from Ministry of Primary Industries”, says Larry McKenna of Escarpment in Martinborough.
“We are fortunate to have a team of Thai pickers willing and able to pick – as most others have moved in with machine harvesters – but the good news is that 2020 is an absolutely stunning vintage: great clean ripe grapes, correctly loaded vines and our earliest ever harvest”, says McKenna (pictured right).
“It is quite surreal as this is usually a very social time of year. We have interns from around the globe far away from home, feeling isolated and not able to interact freely” says Nik Mavromatis of Greystone Wines in Canterbury. “It was made very clear – virus containment first, survival of business second – and if one company errs they threaten to shut down the whole industry”, says Erica Crawford of Loveblock in Marlborough.
In Australia, the quarantine restrictions came on top of a turbulent 2020 vintage with extensive bushfires in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in December and January. “We have very low yields, but thanks to cool nights since New Year the fruit is disease free”, says Johann Henschke (pictured right at Edinburgh's Australia Day tasting in January) in Australia’s Eden Valley.
In Chile, Argentina and Uruguay the story is similar: challenging working conditions with social distancing, but quality of fruit is exceptional. “For us 2020 harvest has been the best ever, a dry year (not normal for Uruguay) with cooler temperatures; the quality of fruit has been off the chart”, says Bodegas Garzon.
Winemaker Nayan Gowda working at Jardin Oculto in Bolivia (pictured right) has been facing more extreme challenges than most. “We only harvested two thirds of Moscatel before borders closed – if we had had four more pickers we would have managed to pick everything. As Bolivia imports everything, our bottles for sparkling wine ordered from Chile cannot get through now. Our new curfew arrangements mean we are only allowed out once a week”, says Gowda.
It is a quieter time in the vineyard in North America. “The vines won’t wait though - we are in the midst of Malbec budbreak and Cabernet Sauvignon on the verge of budding, so we have to be very attentive. In the winery we are bottling at half speed with our core staff. Short-term the challenge is maintaining morale”, says Chris Howell of Cain in California’s Napa Valley (pictured).
In Oregon, one of the first US states to lockdown, Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards (pictured) agrees that keeping morale up is tough, with lunchbreaks for staff separated in their own cars. “My main worry is lack of security of what will happen in the future as wineries are dropping prices; it is already very competitive”, says Lett. “This is like our ‘phylloxera’ – in a way this virus is a similar crisis spreading in waves across the world, but with more human cost”.
In Europe, whilst it is not harvest time, wineries are facing difficulties with supplies, cancelled bottling lines, cancelled orders, zero lack of sales and worry whether picking teams from Eastern Europe will still come.
“Our concern is getting supplies of diesel for tractors and sulphur for vines – and the knock-on effect over the next months. We need to bottle wine in vat to free up space for September, but it will be months before the backlog of cancelled bottlings is cleared”, says Katie Jones (pictured with husband Jean Marc) of Domaine Jones in Tuchan in France.
Philippe and Lynne Raimbault (pictured right) in Sancerre, where people travel from all over the world to the huge annual Foire au Vins, is suffering from lack of tourism. “With two large orders to US on hold, we could be left with 3,000 bottles of Sancerre Rose 2019 already allocated to sell here”, says Raimbault.
Austria’s beautiful Wachau region (pictured right) is usually busy with tourists at Easter time. “Our current worry is the total lack of sales with restaurants shut - and payment for wine already delivered before the crisis looks unlikely as some businesses will not survive”, says Elizabeth Pichler of Pichler-Krutzler in Wachau.
It is the same story in Italy, one of the hardest hit countries in this epidemic. Giampaolo Tabarrini (pictured right) in Montefalco in Umbria agrees: “It is the small boutique wineries selling to restaurants and small wine shops who are suffering with zero sales, whilst big wineries who sell via big supermarket chains or online shops have been doing massive business as it is the only available daily means of shopping”.
This epidemic has impacted on so many people in the industry, from harvest disruptions to closed restaurant businesses - but at least there is a glimmer of good news with a spectacular 2020 vintage for wine lovers to look forward to in years to come.
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