I was fortunate to be invited to the Fladgate Partnership Virtual Press Trip with David Guimaraens to learn about the 2020 port wine harvest. David is the head winemaker for the Flagdate Partnership that includes Fonseca, Taylor’s, and Croft Port. We held a Zoom meeting, which is what helps keep us all safe and connected at the same time. What did David tell us about this vintage?
David Guimaraens Talks About the Growing Season and Harvest 2020
It is a challenging growing season and a complex year in the Douro, Portugal. There is simultaneously an ongoing pandemic plus challenging growing conditions. Once the pandemic hit, the grape vines continued to grow and needed our attention.
February and July stood out as particularly significant months this year. February was extremely hot; 3 degrees hotter than average plus the weather was dry. This caused the vines to have their earliest bud break, which was on March 3rd, and leads to a long growing season, but there was not many buds (Karl: Sorry David explained it better. I hope how I said it is right.) so David expected a lower yield.
Early in the growing season it then became quite wet and they needed to control for mildew. June was damp as well and again had powdery mildew to manage. But then on June 23rd the weather changed to be extremely hot, which caused many grape bunches to sunburn which further reduces yield. The heat continued for 20 days. 36 degrees C was the coolest day in late July. Luckily August was milder and the vines looked healthy. On August 20 they did receive some welcome rain that provided some humidity and helped the grapes ripen.
Picking began on August 24 for their white grapes (Karl: Yes you can have white port) and the red grape picking started the last few days of August. They currently are 1/3 of the way into this year’s harvest. One issue with the harvest is that the grapes from all vineyards in the valley ripened at the same time making a compressed harvest timeline before the grapes became too ripe and desiccated. Desiccated grapes will give port a raisiny character, which is not what they want. This necessitates pickers who can drop those grapes that are desiccated and keep the grapes that will go into port production.
Their workers come from various villages in the Valley, but due to COVID needed to be kept apart. Normally workers from different villages could commute together, but now had to travel separately. Luckily they have not had any COVID occurrence.
David estimates that they will have a 30% lower yield compared to last year. Also due to COVID there will be no foot treading in lagar, instead they will use mechanical plungers.
He also noted that their Tinto Cao grapes did very well this difficult growing season and that it will likely be in 20% of their port production. He noted that they, Taylor’s, has been making port with the Tinto Cao grapes since 1771. Quite amazing!
Lastly David talked about the creativity of the port wine makers as every year can be different from very hot to cooler, which then affects the ripeness of grapes. He said that the use of oak barrels to age port helps to overcome the character of grapes in challenging years by smoothing out the flavours and offering nutty and caramel flavours. In good years it is easy to make a Vintage Port, but more challenging years could require more oak ageing, leading to more Tawny Port production.
I was impressed to hear about the challenges this year in the vineyard and by COVID and how David and his crew has dealt with it I also learned more about the how and why certain types of port are produced, and about the Tinto Cao grape variety and it’s long history in port production. I wish David good luck with the rest of the harvest and look forward to trying his port wines in the future.