Two words sum up 2020. The pandemic. Or, even better – Covid-19. The virus that held us hostage for much of last year seems finally (finally!) to be under control and only now, over a full year later, are we beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on daily life as we know it. Without even mentioning the tragic loss of so many lives, businesses have closed, children have lost a year of education and the mental health of both the young and old has suffered terribly. Everyone, everywhere has dug deep to find great resources of adaptability when it comes to trying to keep their heads above water.
The Effects of the Pandemic on Vintage 2020
The pandemic’s effects stretched far and wide and the fine wine industry was no exception. Barrel tastings had to be hastily rearranged to take place virtually, while producers suffered severe losses as the hospitality trade came to a virtual standstill. The harvest suffered too; pickling had to be done with physical distancing in mind, grapes were delivered in staggered time slots and sanitisation was stepped up. The weather also decided to play its part and extreme conditions meant it was also one of the earliest harvests for a long time. Burgundy began harvesting in mid-august, something which hasn’t been heard of for 650 years). So the question is will wine investors benefit from wine vintage 2020 and should you take the chance to invest now through your wine trading app?
Vintage 2020 by Region
But what of the wine itself? Ironically, 2020 was one of the best harvests that had been seen in a long time. Bumper crops meant a vast yield, and challenging weather conditions meant winemakers had a lot to deal with. But experts are quietly hopeful that the vintage will be good.
With the Bordeaux en-primeur week taking place much later until this year (26-29th April) and Burgundy and the Rhone Valley’s tasting weeks happening virtually, the jury is still out on what to expect from the pandemic vintage. The general feel is that if 2020 is to 2019 what 2019 was to 2018, then collectors are in for a treat. How Bordeaux en-primeur will unfold though remains to be seen – all eyes are on the end of the month.
Bordeaux: Early Harvest and a Hot Summer
In Bordeaux the mild winter gave way to a wet spring with some of the most violent storms the region had seen for a decade. This was followed by a hot, dry, early half of summer (the warmest since 1959), although August and September were cooler than usual. These optimal conditions gave Bordeaux a much needed boost, as fears had been that the vintage would be less than average.
En-primeur scores are still a few weeks away, so how our favourite Pomerols and Pauillacs will perform is still anyone’s guess. If Saturnalia’s Bordeaux 2020 report is anything to go by, expect great things. Mission Haut Brion from Pessac-Léognan was the highest scorer at 97.7 of the report, while five out of the top ten spots were taken by wines from Pomerol. Saturnalia bases its ratings on pure data alone, and neither taste nor personal preference affect the findings. Investors, get your cheque books ready.
While Bordeaux is undoubtedly the granddaddy of wine regions, investors should not be fooled into thinking that en primeur begins and ends there. Burgundy and the Rhone Valley are also regions that practice the practice. In order to understand the differences between a Pinot Noir and a Petit Verdot, why not take a look at our French Wine Regions article?
As an aside, and nothing to do with Bordeaux en primeur but interesting nevertheless, collectors should also look out for a re-assessment of Bordeaux 2010. This was one of the best vintages in recent times and producers could well be releasing a limited supply of this lauded vintage for its 10-year anniversary. Watch this space.
Burgundy: Small Quantity, Early Harvest
Eric Germain, head of Domaine Vincent Girardin put it succinctly when he told Forbes magazine that “2020 is a year like no other”. The particularly early harvest in Burgundy meant that yields were small, but quality was high. Early pruning gave the grapes time to ripen beautifully, and fruit picked directly off the vine showed excellent balance with “buckets of acidity” and “fairly high” alcohol content.
The unusually hot summer in France’s northerly wine region meant those that didn’t opt for early pruning found themselves with sunburnt grapes, and a poor quality product. These (non-pruned) grapes ripened earlier than usual so while they might have looked good, their taste was not up to the region’s standard. Be on the lookout for this when considering purchasing Burgundy 2020.
Out of all of Bourgone’s fine wines, chablis in particular fared well in 2020. The rich terroir really came into its own in an otherwise challenging year. This could mean great things for the region’s vintage, but only time will tell.
Our advice if looking at adding Burgundy 2020 toyour cellar? Check to see if the vines underwent any green harvesting. That should tell you everything you need to know.
Alsace: Cool Nights, Dry Weather, Great Quality
Alsace was the one region of France that welcomed the complex weather conditions of 2020. The good weather, cool nights and light rainfall were exactly what the region ordered. These optimal conditions prevented any major problems with the grapes – grey mold was absent and there was no trace of disease, grape worms or mildew, problems which have been challenging for Alsace in the past. The absence of complications in 2020s vintage suggests wines without too much sugar but with a healthy alcohol content, which could well lean into excellent aging potential.
The region harvested slightly earlier than usual – early September – but one hopes that should not impact the wine. Producers are cautiously optimistic: “the vintage promises to be healthy and generous”, says Jean Frédéric Hugel of Famille Hugel (and he is the 13th generation of winegrowers at Hugel, so we think he probably knows his grapes). Domaine Paul Blanck & Fils called 2020 “an incredible vintage in terms of maturation and acidity”.
We will be keeping a close eye on Alsace over the next few months. The under the radar region is still something of a hidden treasure when it comes to fine wine and investing. Perhaps 2020 will be the year to change all that and finally put Alsace on the investor’s map. Watch this space.
Champagne: Vibrant, Fresh and Optimistic
France’s north-east clearly had a great 2020, if its third great wine is anything to go by. After the quietly hopeful Burgundy and the excellent potential of Alsace, it was Champagne’s turn to sparkle.
Producers are excited by 2020s vintage, equating it to the sensational 2019 (and the “exceptional” 2018). The pandemic year for Champagne was very much a year of quality over quantity. Harvesting had “the earliest start in history,” according to Comité Champagne, but still within the strict official harvest dates set out by the governing committee (which also controls the yields, among other things). Because of the low yield guidelines, green pruning was almost obligatory, which many carried out early. This slightly controversial farming method allowed the grapes that remained on vine to ripen beautifully and become fuller in flavour. Add to this the heavy rains at the start of the year, followed by a hot summer with mild rain and you have optimal conditions for some very choice bubbly. Will this translate into the bottle and on the secondary market? Only time will tell but all the pinots looked good during the harvest – noir or blanc – while the chardonnay looked fresh and elegant. An excellent harvest by all means, and we can’t wait to see the results.
A final note for investors interested in Champagne: these low yields and excellent potential (although how excellent remains to be seen) will ultimately push the prices high in time. Buy 2020 Champagne when it’s young and get set to play a waiting game.
Continue reading our full guide to en primeur wine.