Vintage and the coronavirus

26 Mar, 2020

With so many wineries still in the thick of vintage, we ask three producers how they are combating the challenges of the coronavirus.  

Until two weeks ago, some staff members at McLaren Vale’s Yangarra had never seen inside a tank or understood the full winemaking process. But after the winery’s cellar door was closed amid mounting concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the wider team took on a range of vintage duties. 

“We were worried that if someone got infected, all of a sudden our ability to process our harvest would be gone,” says winemaker Peter Fraser, who made the 2020 Halliday Wine of the Year. And so began the full team’s winemaking education, which has meant more hands on deck and new skills gained, from shovelling skins out of tanks to measuring acidity levels. Peter expects all fruit to be in by the end of this week before they move on to the next stage of winery work. “The next month is always one of those critical parts of finishing vintage so you can have all the ferments finishing nicely,” he says. 

With several international staff on board this vintage, Peter anticipates they will head home as soon as they can, although one Italian winemaking intern is yet to secure a flight. “I remember being stuck in the US in September 2001 and at times like this, you just want to be home when the world is going crazy,” he says. As for how he sees this vintage, Peter says they were blessed to have dodged summer’s bushfires in McLaren Vale, but soon realised they had half their anticipated yields. “On the upside, the weather during the key ripening period has been incredibly mild, giving rise to slow sugar accumulation and great acid retention. If we play our part right in the winery, the little wine that we will make will be of outstanding quality.”

Henschke in Barossa also closed their cellar door in a bid to make it through the rest of vintage, with Justine Henschke anticipating picking to be finished by mid-April. “We closed to ensure the health and wellbeing of our staff, as well as the wider community, because everything is so close together on our property,” she says. “The finish line is so close and we’ve only got one chance at it, so we’re doing everything we can.” It follows a tough start to vintage for Henschke, with their Lenswood site burnt in the Adelaide Hills fire before Christmas. Despite the challenges and weather-related reduction in yields, the Henschke family is excited about their 2020 fruit, with Justine reporting stellar riesling, pinot gris, shiraz and mataro. Just in much smaller numbers.    

It’s a similar story for Brown Brothers, with chief winemaker Joel Tilbrook reporting their Tasmanian fruit is light on yields, but of outstanding quality. “The season has been cooler than average, so we’re a good two to three weeks behind, but that means grapes have ripened slowly in great condition with excellent acidity,” he says. “It bodes for good quality, albeit not quite the volume.” 

With multiple sites in Victoria and Tasmania, the Brown Brothers team is well-practised in working remotely, with video calls already part of their process. But Joel says they have made a number of other adjustments to combat the spread of the virus. “We’ve adopted all the recommendations. We have a three-shift pattern [during vintage] and increased the separation of shifts,” he says. “We’re also doing social distancing and have upweighted our hygiene, wiping down all surfaces like the control panels on the presses. That’s been the case across all of our sites.” 

After an intense summer of looming bushfires around Brown Brothers’ home of Milawa in Victoria’s High Country, Joel says they are still assessing the full extent of that impact. Having extended their fruit sources at the time to prepare for any losses, the team is confident they will be able to produce the majority of wines in their collection. 

Joel expects their Victorian fruit to be in by Easter, with Tasmania to follow at the end of April, and he has high hopes for what’s to come. “Vintage 2020 has a bit of a bad name, but despite the challenges, in a cooler season, with slow-ripening conditions and low to moderate yields, there will be a lot of great wines this year.”   

For more on the process behind vintage and insights on 2020, check out the latest edition of Halliday magazine.