Finally something good comes out of the pandemic. After a textbook harvest —which coincided with the first covid-19 cases in Uruguay—, experts and winemakers are heralding the 2020 vintage the best in decades, reports Adriana Rossi, president of the Uruguay Sommelier Association for Guru’Guay.
Usually in Uruguay, the grape harvest begins in February and ends in early April. It’s a very nerve-wracking time as it is common for occasional summer rains to threaten the quality of the grapes.
In most vineyards, different varieties of vines coexist and each has a different ripening time. This means that each winery has its own estimated timetable for the processing of each variety and each wine to be made. But in spite of the best planning, it is Mother Nature who really decides.
The variety and the region in the harvest
Uruguay is divided into six wine regions: Northern Riverside, Southern Riverside, North, Central, Ocean and Metropolitan. Each of them has different soils and although almost all the regions are influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, the microclimate in each is slightly different, causing the same grape variety to develop different characteristics according to the region.
Each variety has its own optimal ripening phase. There are early ripening varieties such as Pinot Noir or Albariño, and varieties that ripen later such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Tannat. In the warmer regions to the north and centre of Uruguay, it is common for the harvest to start earlier than in the cooler regions to the south on the Atlantic itself.
Why can rain ruin a harvest?
Inside each grape, there are acids and sugars which will be the food for the yeasts that will finally transform the grape juice (must) into wine. In addition there are compounds which are responsible for the colour in red wines and tannins, which give a wine its astringency.
When the grape is in its ripening period (which is not a single moment but rather a short period of time), all these compounds are in a delicate balance. However, if it rains at this precise moment, the plant will absorb the water and cause the grape berries to swell—diluting the contents. As a result, the quality of the grape drops dramatically.
So why is the Uruguay 2020 vintage considered historic?
When we talk about this or that year’s harvest, we are not just referring to the moment when the grapes are picked. The vineyard has a cycle which in Uruguay begins in July and August, our winter, when the pruning is done, which will be the basis for the management of the vine during the rest of the cycle.
The weather conditions are decisive at each stage of the vine’s development, as well as the work carried out on it. After pruning, the time comes when the vine wakes up from its winter rest. At this stage, September-October, the greatest threat is the first frosts that can burn the tender buds and shoots. The next stage is leaf development as the vine unfolds its leaves to have a greater surface area to capture sunlight. Then the blossoms, the future grapes, appear. Next we have the little bunches with their tiny green grapes and all that remains is to wait for them to slowly grow and take on colour, along with the arrival of summer, Father Christmas and the New Year.
At each of these stages, the vine synthesises nutrients and energy which it channels into the fruit clusters so that the grapes grow healthy, strong and delicious. Each of these stages has its risks and dangers.
In 2020, the risks and threats were virtually non-existent and the few that did exist were easily manageable.
The result: a harvest in which it was possible to choose the exact moment to pick the grapes without being rushed, each variety was able to express the best of its terroir and there was quantity and quality for each winemaker and enologist to choose what he or she wanted to make. It was a veritable “textbook vintage”.
The wines of 2020
Wines of the 2020 vintage have been available in Uruguay since mid 2020. Uruguayan wine legislation allows wines from the most recent vintage to be released onto the market from June 1 of the same year.
The first to appear on the market are the whites, rosés and young reds. The reserves of the 2020 vintage will be memorable, but we still have to wait for them. Until when? If we are thinking of wines that sit in oak barrels for at least 12 months, they will need another six months in the bottle to finish refining, so that puts us at the beginning of 2022.
So exciting times now and ahead for wine lovers of Uruguay wine.
Adriana Rossi is president of the Uruguay Sommelier Association and runs Personal Wine Shopper, a customised wine selection and delivery service serving wine lovers in Montevideo and beyond.