Portugal 2020 Harvest Report: Good quality in a demanding year
Portugal delivered a high-quality harvest in 2020, despite it being a challenging vintage for many reasons. Winemakers had to contend with unstable climatic conditions in many regions and one of the hottest summers on record, as well as the difficulties posed by COVID-19 restrictions and other knock-on effects of the pandemic. It even impacted the reliability of weather forecasts - atmospheric data collection was reduced as so many commercial aircraft were grounded. Whilst many activities ground to a halt across the world, the vine growing cycle continued regardless. Vineyard and winemaking teams had to adapt to the new social distancing regulations and formed support bubbles to allow their work to continue. Despite, a reduction in the quantity of grapes harvested in several regions, winemakers across the country are reporting that the young wines are looking very promising.
We look forward to the arrival of the first of the 2020 wines next year. Though it has been an extraordinary vintage for many reasons, it has resulted in some truly exciting wines.
The growing cycle in Vinho Verde began earlier than usual, with mild temperatures during the spring triggering bud burst two weeks ahead of schedule. July was especially hot, with temperatures reaching 41°C. There were three days of rain in mid-August, but this did not affect the health of the grapes on the Quinta de Azevedo estate, as the intensive work done in the vineyards throughout the year produced a resilient crop and well-managed cover crops helped to absorb the excess water in the soil. Harvest at Quinta de Azevedo took place earlier than normal, starting with specific plots of Alvarinho on 5th September and ending with the Loureiro on 18th September. Mechanical harvesting was done at night, to ensure maximum freshness in the grapes, and a precision harvest was carried out, requiring extra effort and rapid action, but guaranteeing that each variety and plot on the estate was harvested at the optimum point of ripeness.
Head winemaker António Braga is “very happy with this year’s wines” and is particularly pleased with the quality of the Loureiro, which retained its aromatics and acidity despite the hot year, and the Alvarinho, declaring that some plots might even be “the best Alvarinho the estate has ever produced!”
The 2020 vintage got off to an unsettled start in the Douro with a rainy spring causing an increase in disease pressure in the vineyards and a reduction in yields. The summer was dry and very hot and featured the hottest July in the last 30 years. This accelerated the growing cycle and required careful canopy management to avoid sunburn. Some rainfall in mid-August gave the red varieties the boost needed to undergo the final stages of ripening during the heat that continued in September. 2020 is one of the earliest harvests on record in the Douro, starting at the very beginning of August for white varieties and finishing in early October. Yields were down 30% compared to 2019, owing to the unsettled spring weather and some sunburn and dehydration of the grapes during the intense heat.
Although he notes that there was “nothing easy about this harvest”, Luís Sottomayor, head winemaker for Casa Ferreirinha and Offley, reports that quality is high, with very promising wines of good intensity and balance despite the exceptionally hot summer. Luís was particularly pleased with the freshness and intensity of the grapes from the high-altitude Quinta do Sairrão, which are used in the Casa Ferreirinha ‘Vinha Grande’ Branco and Rosé, and the quality of the Touriga Nacional, Sousão and Moscatel grapes from Quinta do Seixo.
Luís also highlights the quality of the grapes from Casa Ferreirinha’s prime Quinta da Leda estate in the far eastern reaches of the Douro Superior. Being the hottest and driest of the Douro sub-regions, the vines here are already adapted to the hot and dry conditions experienced in 2020 and also benefitted from selective irrigation during the hot season. Luís also explains that old-vine vineyard parcels and estates on the south bank of the Douro (including Quinta da Leda, Quinta do Sairrão, Quinta do Vau, Quinta do Caêdo and Quinta do Seixo) were better able to withstand the heat and produced intense and complex wines and brought balance when blended with wines from warmer areas.
At Quinta dos Carvalhais in the Dão, in addition to the heat of the summer, frosts at the very beginning of April damaged the new shoots and caused a significant reduction in yields across the region (down 25% versus 2019). The vintage in Dão shared a lot of the characteristics of the vintage in the Douro, with spring rains and challenges with mildew, the intense heat of the summer to contend with and a well-timed rain shower on 20th August described by winemaker Beatriz Cabral de Almeida as “a spectacular bout of irrigation that significantly triggered the maturation process". The harvest on the estate was carried out entirely by hand and took place around two weeks earlier than usual, starting with the Gouveio on 26th August and concluding with a plot of Alfrocheiro from the Lago vineyard on 14th September.
Beatriz notes that 2020 was a “year in which the different varieties and terroirs were very expressive” and the multiple vineyard plots on the Quinta dos Carvalhais estate, matched to individual varieties, provided her with an “incredible diversity” of wines with which to create the estate’s complex and unique blends. Despite the hot conditions, she is pleased to report that the whites have retained their acidity, aromatics and freshness and reports a very high-quality year for reds: “aromatic, fresh and vibrant wines that are a pleasure to taste”.
In other news from the estate, one of the high points of this year has been the replanting of the 28 hectares of vineyard which were damaged during the devastating bush fires in 2017. Beatriz is excited about “rebirth, and the beginning of a new cycle. It makes me dare to dream...”
As if growers weren’t already sufficiently up against it with the many challenges of 2020, in the Quinta de Pedralvites vineyard in Bairrada, the source of the Sercialinho grapes for the limited edition Série Ímpar 2017, a lightning strike in the vineyards during thunderstorms in May destroyed 75 vines.
The 2020 vintage in the Vidigueira sub-region of the Alentejo got off to a tricky start, with May rains causing some challenges with mildew and an attack of green leafhoppers in June. The heatwave of July demanded very careful management of the vine canopy to avoid sunburn and regular monitoring of hydric requirements to prevent vine stress. Hot conditions continued in August, but without the cool nights typical of Vidigueira at this time of year. This accelerated the ripening and the harvest at Herdade do Peso was one of the earliest on record: starting on 12th August with the white varieties and finishing on 17th September.
Luís Cabral de Almeida, head winemaker at Herdade do Peso, explains how the harvest took place at night and the cold room at the winery was essential for lowering the temperature of the grapes to preserve freshness. Despite the challenges, he speaks of a “quality harvest” in the Alentejo “with some exceptional wines”. He is pleased with the Antão Vaz on the Herdade do Peso estate, which showed its resilience and ability to adapt to the hot weather. He is also impressed by certain plots of Alicante Bouschet “with its fine balance and intensity and volume in the mouth” and Syrah “extremely aromatic, resinous and peppery”.
Other news from the Herdade do Peso estate this year includes the planting of an additional 37 hectares of vines, with varieties matched to the 12 different soil types on the estate. The construction of a new winery was also completed in time to receive this year’s harvest.