The 2020 vintage will be one to remember for the wrong reasons.

The 2020 eastern Australian vintage shows every sign of being the worst ever affected by fire and smoke. Wine regions along the eastern seaboard were savaged by fires, mostly forest fires, between November and early February, when heavy rains helped douse most of the flames.

At the time of writing, NSW wineries in Hunter Valley, Mudgee, Tumbarumba, Orange, Canberra District and the South Coast had announced they will not be making much wine, if any, from the 2020 vintage. Not all wineries in these regions are affected: in the Hunter, vineyards nearest the forested Brokenback Range appear most affected by smoke taint, while those at a distance from it have been spared.

In Victoria, Beechworth and other areas of the north-east were hard hit, while the south-eastern areas such as Gippsland were sporadically affected. At the time of writing, producers in Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula say they’re worried, but — being later to harvest — they’re yet to know the full truth regarding possible smoke taint.

In South Australia, the Adelaide Hills region experienced a devastating fire in mid-December, but that was sufficiently early in the season and the smoke haze relatively short-lived, so taint problems are not as bad as they might have been. However, one-third of the vineyards have been directly affected and some were destroyed. Kangaroo Island had a catastrophic summer and is likely to have very little wine: according to official reports, 48% of the island burned.

Gippsland smoke hung over parts of northern Tasmania for several days, but is unlikely to have damaged wine grapes.  

All of this follows severe drought that has already heavily reduced grape yields in many regions. The Barossa, for example, escaped smoke and flame but has had a much-reduced crop because of the drought and a bad flowering.

Western Australian viticulture — which has a charmed life generally — has escaped the fire and smoke apocalypse. Tasmania and the rest of South Australia likewise.

Tyrrell’s and other high-profile wineries announced quite early on that Australian Wine Research Institute testing resulted in smoke-taint figures so high that they decided not to pick most of their grapes this season. That in turn inspired people like Adelaide Hills winemakers Mike Press, of Mike Press Wines, and Brian Croser, of Tapanappa, to issue statements attempting to counter the negative press.

They said much of their region was untouched and would be making sound wine from a relatively good season. They suggested the fear about smoke taint was overstated, which upset many wine people who were seriously affected.  

Croser suggested that a bit of smoke taint was not necessarily such a bad thing and that some of the finest wines he’d ever tasted had a little smoke taint.

What he didn’t say was that the majority of wine drinkers were unlikely to notice low-level smoke taint in their wine.

The problem arises when tainting is at a high level: at its worst it can taste like wine that has been tipped into a used ashtray and swirled around among cigarette butts. I’ve tasted such wine and it made me gag. But it’s highly unlikely winemakers who care about their reputation would bottle such wine.

A complicating factor is that in some wines, the taint increases after bottling. This is why high-profile wineries like Tyrrell’s, Mount Pleasant, Tulloch and Pepper Tree are being so careful.

As always, we critics will reserve judgement until the 2020 wines appear on the market. It’s what’s inside that counts.