The Argentinian phrase Una de cal y otra de arena (literally: ‘one of lime, the other of sand’), used to describe good things following bad, or vice versa, just about sums it up: an early, extraordinarily high quality harvest in otherwise terrible circumstances.
This year’s harvest was affected by two major factors: the warmest conditions on record and COVID-19. The latter cast its shadow over the harvesting teams while the former ensured that the harvest was brought forward 2 to 5 weeks, depending on the varietal and region. By the time the true scale of the pandemic had become apparent and a strict quarantine had been declared there were barely any grapes left to pick.
“It was very stressful,” says Matías Ciciani, the oenologist at Escorihuela. “We were afraid that the harvest wasn’t going to go ahead but in the end we managed to get all the grapes into the winery by the third week of March, when the quarantine was declared.” His relief is tangible.
His experience was replicated almost everywhere. With the warm, dry spring and summer, the accelerated concentration of sugars made an early harvest obligatory, even where the flesh was still green. Martín Kaiser, an agricultural engineer at Doña Paula, explains: “In Luján de Cuyo this year, we recorded 55 days with temperatures above 32°C, when they would normally be 30 or 31 degrees.” And so, the whole harvest was squeezed into a few weeks.
“In early March, almost all the Cabernets and Malbecs ripened together,” says Marcelo Belmonte, Director of Viticulture at Grupo Peñaflor. “In logistical terms, it was very complex: getting all the harvesting, pressing and fermentation done within that window was hard work,” he says. Nonetheless, workers at the vineyards and wineries were able to keep potential exposure to COVID to a minimum.
“During warm years, it is quality that defines the vineyard,” says Sebastián Zuccardi, who is in charge of the family’s vineyards and winemaking. He adds: “If the vines are stressed, the heat puts them over the top, they get blocked up and don’t ripen properly.”
Alejandro Sejanovich, winemaker and oenologist at Manos Negras, agrees: “This harvest meant we had to bend the rules,” he says. “Because heat is the enemy of freshness; but if the vines were watered properly and kept in balance, the results this year will be surprising.”
This would appear to be the key takeaway from the 2020 harvest. Contrary to what one might expect, those who threw away the manual and read the vines themselves were able to achieve grapes with high levels of acidity. “The grapes are al dente; this harvest has been extraordinary,” says Hervé Birnie Scott, Director of Oenology at Chandon Argentina. “The colour and freshness this year will be memorable.”
But although winemakers seem to have read the vineyards just right, the grapes still need to be handled properly to make the best wine. Pablo Richardi, the Oenological Director at Flechas de Los Andes, says: “At first we were afraid we were harvesting too young. But when we began to analyze the grapes, we adjusted the fermentation models to get them perfect.”
Meanwhile, Santiago Mayorga, oenologist at Cadus Wines, says that “getting the right maceration and press work was key.”
In the Calchaquí Valleys, meanwhile, the climate this year was moderate, very cloudy and with higher than average rainfall. There, “the wines ripened a little slowly but with excellent flavour parameters for reds,” says Thibaut Delmotte at Colomé. Similarly, Rafael Domingo, oenologist at the Domingo Hermanos winery, says that the Torrontés “will be fresher than other years.”
In Patagonia, meanwhile, the harvest was well under way – continuing the pattern of harvesting at least two weeks earlier – but hadn’t finished by the time COVID-19 struck. “It wasn’t easy,” reports Leonardo Puppato, oenologist at Bodega Schroeder, “because everything from transport to getting active teams in the field was an issue. But we made a huge effort to maintain safety and quality standards.”