Vintage 2020 - The toughest vintage ever despite the best ever grapes?

Spring this season was particularly unsettled with some very frosty starts. Budbreak was later than last year and a bit more uneven as southerly blasts kept coming up the country through late September and early October. Luckily our vineyards came through without major damage.

November and the start of December were much warmer and more settled which meant flowering was early and quick. Good flowering conditions across all varieties led to much more even berry size and more berries per bunch than last year. The last substantial rainfall of summer was on the 17th of December and after that Marlborough has dried out. This wasn’t evident early in January as ash drifting across from Australia meant there was a lot of cooler cloudy weather to keep the paddocks green. However, the season warmed up heading into February, leaving the Wither Hills living up to their name. This dry spell meant that fruit went through veraison in very good condition. No disease was evident, and canopies looked great. In the last week or so the nights cooled off, allowing extra time for flavour development heading into harvest.

The first block to be harvested was handpicked Pinot Gris from the Taylor Pass valley. Over the next week as we harvested various blocks, the signs pointing towards a Covid lockdown grew, and we were all increasingly anxious as to whether we would be able to finish harvest.

On Monday 23rd March, as we were handpicking our first Sauvignon Blanc grapes at Meadowbank Vineyard, we heard the news that New Zealand was heading into lockdown for a month in two day’s time. Thankfully the New Zealand government announced that the wine industry would be considered an essential service and harvest could continue so long as all workers met strict criteria.

Vineyard and winery crews, who were already practicing social distancing, scrambled to ensure they had practices in place to meet the stringent requirements to continue working.

In the winery, workers split into different shifts and were restricted to different areas of the winery to keep in separate bubbles. New online systems were introduced for job notes and instructions between winemakers and cellar staff to further avoid contact. At the change of each shift, fruit processing stopped for an hour to allow all surfaces to be cleaned down thoroughly.

In the vineyards, all the hand harvest crews were in their own harvesting bubble meaning that once they finished their day’s picking they were basically holed up in their accommodation. The contractor did all their shopping for food and any medical supplies, so they had no contact with outsiders. Growers and winemakers also had to keep their distance from the teams in the vineyards so as not to break the bubble.

The machine harvesting crews also needed to ensure vehicles were well cleaned between changes of shift so there were longer periods of downtime and staff all needed separate vehicles to get to each vineyard if they were in different bubbles.

Luckily although all these new practices did slow the pace of harvesting, the weather played its part superbly. The continual mild dry conditions meant that the fruit harvested was in perfect condition and really, apart from the stress caused by virus and its unknown effects on operations, the actual harvest was a breeze with fruit being harvested in some of the best condition we have ever seen. The last fruit to be picked was Sauvignon Blanc from our southernmost site in the Awatere. This was harvested on 6th April and brought the most surreal vintage anyone has experienced to a close for the Jules Taylor Wines team.