Almudena Alberca MW Reflects On The Spanish Wine Scene in 2020


The year 2020 will be irreversibly engraved in the memory of Spanish winegrowers and winemakers due to multiple factors. Above all. it’s been a tough year characterised by viticultural challenges and the dramatic impact of COVID19 which completely changed our way of life.

Viticultural work during 2020 has been challenging due to high rainfall and high temperatures that caused very high disease pressure. Rainfall in the first half of the year exceeded the average annual rainfall of previous years. This rainfall improved the low reserves in the soil, helping many vines to recover. The improvement was exceptionally positive in very old vines, favouring budbreak in the weakest plants and improving yields obtained during the year without compromising quality, according to Bertrand Sourdais in his project Dominio de Es (pictured below with Almudena on a recent visit). 

On the other hand, the high and frequent rainfall was accompanied by high temperatures from budbreak to veraison, causing very strong disease pressure, especially downy mildew and powdery mildew in most Spanish winegrowing areas. Work in the vineyard became exhausting due to the need to work the vines in a very immediate and constant manner. High quality growers in Rioja indicated that they had not seen such a high pressure of mildew in the area since 1941.  Many vineyards lost the crop, especially those whose growers were not close enough to the field. 

Green pruning had to be done even more frequently and on several occasions, requiring a lot of manpower. Yields were higher in all areas, about 10% more than in 2019, although this increase did not detract from quality and balance. With the halt in sales caused by COVID19, quality production areas such as Rioja, for the first time in history, lowered the maximum yields allowed, thus favouring and increasing the quality of grapes for the 2020 vintage.

The high temperatures brought forward the harvest date by two weeks compared to the average of recent years. Winemakers such as Peter Sisseck harvested their Pingus wines in mid-September, almost three weeks earlier than in a normal year, with excellent quality and balance in the wines. The greatest desire of the grape growers and winemakers when the harvest arrived was to harvest as soon as possible to minimise contact among the workers and to finish the long and intense cycle as soon as possible.

Although viticulture has been tough, it is clear that the impact of COVID19 on the world of wine has been immense. It has caused imbalances throughout the production chain, from the winegrowers to the end consumer. The world of wine has a high social component; the on-trade channels up to 50% of the wine consumed. The closure of the on-trade and national and international restrictions on mobility have caused much deterioration at all levels, especially in wineries based on on-trade consumption, as a result of which in many cases there has been a decrease in production during the 2020 harvest. In contrast, there are many success stories among the wineries that make fine wine in Spain, Vega Sicilia, Pingus, Dominio de Es or Rafael Palacios among others, indicate that sales of their wines continue their normal course or even better than in previous years. 

Between the vineyard and the harvest, wineries have been preparing their wines for the 2018 vintage and in some cases for 2019. After a period of warm vintages, the 2018 vintage is a gift for winemakers, Bertrand Sourdais comments that the 2018 vintage are very interesting, the most Atlantic wines of recent years, offering very complex aromas and flavors in balance with a pronounced acidity that is going to give the wines a lot of aging potential. In contrast, on a recent visit to Dominio de Es we were able to taste with him the much warmer 2019 vintage with lower yields offering power and concentration that is still very much present in the wines still aging in barrel.

If Spain was in a transformation towards quality and excellence, the recovery of the COVID19 period is going to push wineries to improve and professionalize their business by being much more demanding in their winemaking to offer higher quality wines. 

Almudena Alberca is Spain’s first female Master of Wine and Oeno’s Brand Ambassador for Spain.

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