Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


How did lockdown impact 2020 wines?

A reader writes this week to ask how the 2020 vintage was impacted by Covid lockdowns from mid March to late April and whether wine quality was affected in any way.

The writer says that he understands that March and April are a crucial time for harvesting and wonders whether this was disrupted due to lockdown restrictions. 

Good question. And even more so right now since most or all of the 2020 red wines are either now on the market or have sold out because it was a stunning year in many regions, in terms of reliably warm dry weather. Harvest tends not to be all smooth sailing, even in a year with great weather conditions, and there were challenges. Some winemakers started picking early when they were panic stricken that lockdown may not be permitted to legally proceed. Fortunately, it could proceed. Every region in New Zealand begins and ends harvest at slightly different times, due to their latitude, the grape variety (different varieties ripen at different times) and the weather in their own region. This country is far from consistent in terms of the weather in each region so there can never be one vintage pronouncement on quality or style that can accurately cover the entire country.

The Government announced that wine was an essential service within the first week of full lockdown, which was great timing as March and April are crucial for harvesting grapes. This meant that the country's winemakers, grape growers and pickers could resume or embark on picking grapes, without a hitch. And since workers were already in New Zealand by then, it was a lot smoother than, for instance, 2022; a year in which foreign workers were in really short supply in this country. There were some smaller wineries where the owners rely on harvest workers being able to travel each day to pick grapes and in 2020 this was not possible. So, for some people, it was all hands (family and friends - at a safe distance) picking grapes but the harvest went ahead. 

Complications arose in 2020 in some regions where winemakers already began harvesting early due to concerns that vintage might not be allowed to proceed but lockdown came along, the good news arrived that harvest could continue and, for many, the settled weather made it relatively smooth. The further south you go in this country, the later the grapes need to be harvested, so many had started and finished picking while others had rushed to pick some grape varieties early, just in case it was not possible to continue harvest during what looked to be a looming lockdown. 

The positive news that wine was deemed an essential service (as some of us already knew it was and is - it is this country's fifth biggest export earner, after all), harvest generally continued as normal. 

Even better was the fact that 2020 was, in east cost regions of the country, a pretty stellar vintage. Warm, dry conditions in summer led to a beautiful long and settled autumn with barely a drop of rain, which led to drought conditions after ripening had finished. It's hard to imagine a more ideal summer; it was my first year living in Martinborough and while I was walking and cycling around during lockdown, it was great to see such healthy grapes. 

The same stands true for Hawke's Bay, where winemakers were able, in my view, to produce their best ever Syrahs and red blends based on Bordeaux grape varieties. To judge by the quality of Pinot Noirs and reds from Marlborough and North Canterbury, the vintage is an excellent one. 

The one region in which 2020 was not so easy is Central Otago. It was weather rather than lockdown, however, that made it a tricky year for winemakers but I have found that the top tier of Central Pinot Noirs is superb from 2020, proving that where there is a will (to drop inferior fruit - grapes - and make less but better wine), there is a way. 

A winemaker friend brought over a bottle of this wine earlier in the week and it was blind tasted by a group of us, including yours truly, who were all incredibly impressed. Here are our thoughts.

2020 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir RRP $54-ish

The concentration of flavour, depth of colour, layers of savouriness and long finish made us all immediately think of an east coast Pinot Noir wine region. Its distinctive boldness and complex flavours make this a wine to sip and savour; a vino contemplazione, as my Italian friends would say. Drinking beautifully now and it has the structure to age a lot longer. A  keeper.

PS  If you see 2020 reds from Hawke's Bay, Martinborough, the Wairarapa (Gladstone and north) and North Canterbury, snap them up. They will last the distance.