How winemakers are coping with wildfires – and smoke taint

by Oct 7, 2020News0 comments

US West Coast wineries are suffering with devastating fires  (photo by the US Army)US West Coast wineries are suffering with devastating fires  (photo by the US Army)

US West Coast wineries are suffering with devastating fires (photo by the US Army)

Dear reader,

We’re guessing you have seen especially in the last few months how wildfires – such as in the case of the US West Coast fire season – have threatened vineyards and even the lives of passionate winemakers.

As in the case of Napa Valley, dry weather, strong winds and embers can be an extremely dangerous scenario for anyone. When it comes to wine growing and winemaking, even if vines are usually less prone to burning down than forests, it also means another big problem for the following months: smoke taint, something that can pose a huge risk to a whole vintage.

Let’s have a look at wildfires affect vineyards and how winemakers have been coping with this despairing situation and its consequences.

Photo by Jackson Family WinesPhoto by Jackson Family Wines

Photo by Jackson Family Wines

Why are some wine regions so prone to wildfires?

Many of the most famous wine regions are dry, which helps growing grapes with more concentrated flavors – thus, making more complex wines. These regions usually get rainfall only over autumn and winter. Think California, the Iberian Peninsula and many others.

When it’s Summer, instead, the dry weather feeds into higher temperatures, thus facilitating conditions for sparks and unpredictable embers.

Dry vegetation and warm winds worsen it even more for places that are suffering with longer droughts and extreme conditions associated with climate change. California, again, being an easy-to-recall example.

Thankfully, vineyards often work as natural firebreaks, as Wine Spectator points out. The spacing or the vines, the limited combustion they provide in comparison with trees and the vines’ deep, green roots tend to protect them from most of the fires that surround them – sadly, not when an inferno happens.

As we have seen in the recent Napa, Sonoma and Oregon fires, flames, ashes and smoke created surreal, saddening images. Blazing conditions have been destructive in several Californian regions, with heartbreaking images being spread worldwide of burned down houses, scorched vineyards and grapes that never could be harvested mid-season.

Vines are safe? Now, problem is smoke taint

Several producers in the region have had to evacuate, whilst other have been already assessing the scale of the damage.

A problem that remains for everyone, even when they manage to avoid suffering larger damage, is always smoke taint. This effect of burning wood releases compounds called volatile phenols that taint the skin of the grapes and also permeate them, creating smoky flavors and aromas that can render a wine unpleasant and unmarketable. Not harmful, but sadly resembling even char.

As Wine Spectator quotes Prudy Foxx, of consulting firm Foxx Viticulture in the Santa Cruz Mountains, if a grape cluster is heavily impacted, “it smells like the bottom of a wood stove.”

Any way out?

Sadly, rinsing the skin is not really helpful for red wines, for example, which go through a wider maceration process in which stems, skins and juices of the grapes are more sensitive.

But thankfully, everything’s not lost. As Wine Folly points out, even if vineyards and grapes are exposed to smoke, it’s not the end of the world for their wines. Here are what they show, from the Australian Wine Institute, in terms of practical tactics for managing fruit that has been exposed to smoke:

  • Hand harvest fruit to minimize breaking or rupturing of skins

  • Exclude leaf material to limit smoke-related characteristic

  • Maintain integrity of harvest fruit, avoiding maceration and skin contact

  • Keep fruit cool to extract less smoke-related compounds

  • Whole bunch press to reduce extraction of smoke-derived compounds

According to Wine Spectator, winemakers can also attempt to extract the smoke taint with activated charcoal or spinning-cone technology – however, activated charcoal could strip some of the wine’s flavors as well, as it is to be seen in the near future for some attempts.

Wine Spectator also reports on how researchers at Canada’s University of British Columbia in Kelowna are testing a spray used on cherries that could block the volatile phenols from penetrating grape skins. In Napa, Buckland is trying an agricultural spray to protect the crop by creating a waxy layer over the surface of the grapes to minimize the uptake of smoke-derived compounds.

We are now to see whether the 2020 vintage is coming along in the future, hoping things will come out fine for our Californian friends, who make incredible wines such as the ones by Opus One. Let’s hope this is not a lost year.

Maybe, with the current state of drought and climate change, smoke taint could become a new normal in some places. Let’s see how any risks could be mitigated.

(PS. Wine Spectator gives a hint on how you can help citizens and wineries affected by the 2020 fires.)

Until next time!

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