The 2020 wine grape harvest across the northern hemisphere was always going to present challenges for grape growers and wineries trying to operate safely and cost-effectively during the pandemic. With greatly reduced sales to restaurants and bars, winemakers struggled to forecast inventory needs while developing new hygiene and physical distancing protocols during harvesting and at their wineries. But some vintners also face unexpected complications from climate change and the effects of COVID-19.
Burgundy recorded its earliest harvest in more than six centuries, while Champagne saw workers hauling in grapes in mid-August, the fastest start to season ever, due to an unusually warm spring that spurred rapid growth in the vineyards, which never let up.
Meanwhile, fierce wildfires across parts of California, Oregon and Washington are threatening lives and property. Last year’s massive California wildfires happened later in the season, after the majority of grapes were harvested. This year, wineries must grapple with air quality issues, power outages and how to safely harvest grapes at this time. There are also questions surrounding what effect the smoke and ash will have on the quality of the wines produced.
Grapes can absorb and accumulate aromatic compounds that give resulting wines a smoky flavour. Dubbed “smoke taint,” it’s considered a fault in wine.
As a precaution, wineries have grapes tested for chemical indicators of smoke impact before they decided to harvest the fruit. The size and scope of the fires this year has overwhelmed the laboratories that do the testing. Winemakers cannot afford to wait to hear the results and will have to conduct their own less rigorous sensory analysis on grape juice.
While there’s always risk and uncertainty associated with grape growing and wine production, these current situations swing the threat level from difficult to dire. Winemakers are bound to go to exhaustive measures to find creative solutions. With that in mind, here are a selection of recent releases that are worth seeking out to toast the success of wineries facing a harvest like no other.
Cambria Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 (United States)
Located in Santa Maria, Calif., the Cambria winery is home base for the Jackson family, who own and operate wineries up and down the coast of California and in other parts of the world, including Unsworth Vineyards on Vancouver Island. Katherine’s Vineyard is named for older daughter Katie Jackson. One of the winery’s larger production wines, this represents a blend of fruit from the 34 different blocks of chardonnay grown there. It knits together nicely for a juicy and refreshing white wine with a mix of appealing fruit, floral and spice notes. Drink now to 2022. Available at the above price in British Columbia ($25.99 until Oct. 3), various prices in Alberta, $29.95 in Ontario (2017 vintage).
Château Bellevue La Forêt 2018 (France)
Bellevue La Forêt is an estate producer based in Fronton in southwest France, where it makes noteworthy red wines that are blends of the local négrette grape with syrah, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. The 2018 red vintage offers a mix of ripe fruit with savoury and spicy notes. Fresh with a smooth texture, this is ready to drink now or can be safely tucked away for the next three to five years. Available in Ontario.
Château Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2016 (France)
This stunning and age-worthy red makes the most of the standout 2016 in the Rhône Valley. A wine with serious intensity of flavour and concentration, it’s nicely layered with dark fruit, fragrant spice and toasted oak notes. Its instant appeal makes it appropriate to take straight to the dinner table, but collectors will value its strong aging potential. Drink now to 2030. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta (2015 vintage), $52.50 in Quebec (2015 vintage).
Church & State Wines Marsanne 2017 (Canada)
Church & State’s portfolio of white wines from the 2017 vintage attract attention. They’re rich and boldly flavoured wines served up with freshness and style. This distinctive marsanne stood out from the lineup, not least due to the grape’s relatively scarcity in Okanagan vineyards. Produced with grapes from two sites on the Black Sage Bench area, this offers dried apricot, honey and vanilla notes with some floral and nutty accents. Drink now to 2023. Available direct through churchandstatewines.com.
Lungarotti San Giorgio 2016 (Italy)
Coming from Umbria, this splurge-worthy sangiovese and cabernet blend is understated and seriously structured. Dry, with the mouthwatering acidity typical to Italian reds, this offers complexity and terrifically balanced character. If you’re planning to open soon, I suggest decanting and pouring into the biggest bowl wine glass you have to get the most of this food-friendly wine. Drink now to 2026. Available in Ontario.
Stonestreet Chardonnay 2016 (United States)
Here’s a rich and rewarding style of chardonnay from the Stonestreet estate in Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. There’s an enticing mix of fruit, toffee and oak derived notes that carry through to a long refreshing finish. Drink now to 2023. Available in Ontario at the above price, $59.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
SpearHead Winery Chardonnay Clone 95 2018 (Canada)
Clone 95 is a variation of the chardonnay grape that comes from the Burgundy region of French, which is celebrated for its low yields and high quality, flavourful fruit. This complex chardonnay is produced by SpearHead with Clone 95 vines from the Duncan Vineyard on the Naramata Bench and the winery’s estate in Kelowna. Fermented and aged for 10 months in French oak barrels of different sizes and maturity (including 40 per cent new barrels), this offers attractive pear, apple and citrus notes alongside toasty and nutty notes. Drink now to 2025. Available at the above price direct through spearheadwinery.com, various prices in Alberta.
Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2016 (South Africa)
The white blend category in South Africa continues to excel as winemakers increasingly look to produce stylish and inviting wines with the grape varieties on hand as well as single variety selections. The Circle of Life white combines sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and semillon grown in organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards in Stellenbosch, with fermentation and aging in older oak barrels and egg-shaped concrete vessels. The sauvignon blanc character really stands out on the nose and palate, while the chenin and semillon contribute to the overall richness and texture. This works equally well as a refreshing aperitif or dinner companion. Drink now to 2024. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Winzer Krems Ried Kremser Wachtberg Reserve Grüner Veltliner 2018 (Austria)
This is a powerfully ripe expression of Austria’s signature white wine grape, grüner veltliner, demonstrated by the 14-per-cent alcohol level declared on the label and the warming sensation on the long, lingering finish. That flush of warmth is nicely countered by the wine’s intriguing mix of lemon zest, peach and arugula-like pepperiness and rich texture. Drink now to 2026. Available in Ontario.
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