Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

In many wines, the presence of a “smoky” flavor is a welcome surprise.

There are certain grapes, Carmenere, for instance, that give a dose of smoke that is apparent both on the nose and in the mouth. Originally a blending grape in Bordeaux, Carmenere is now the star player in Chilean wines.

And it is not unusual for winemakers who want the smell and flavor of fire to “toast” the oak barrels that they age their wines in. A toasted barrel is actually burned on the inside of the staves to add flavor components. Winemakers can order barrels from their cooper with different levels, ranging from a light to a heavy toast. This process, which the French call Bousinage, allows the wine to take in varying amounts of smoke from the barrels and helps to smooth out tannins in a wine, making it softer in the mouth.

What winemakers don’t want, however, is smoke that comes from wildfires like those that raged through the Santa Cruz Mountains this past week. A huge fire, dubbed the Lockheed Fire, burned more than 7,000 acres in the hills where a number of vineyards are located. With many grapes on the cusp of harvest, there is understandable concern that the heavy smoke from the fires will show up in the juice following the crush.

Be it a result of wineries building and planting more vineyards in wildfire-susceptible areas, global climate change, or just the luck of the draw, it seems that there are monthly stories of wine regions being affected by fire. This past July, I witnessed firsthand a devastating fire that forced the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents in the Okanagan Valley wine region of Canada. In Australia this past February, cataclysmic “bush fires,” as the Aussies call them, took the lives of more than 200 people, burned wineries and left a haze of smoke over the Yarra Valley in Victoria that may have severe impacts on the 2009 vintage. In 2008, vintage California was also affected by numerous fires, up and down the state’s multitude of wine regions.

Much of the information on how smoke affects wine is anecdotal, but it is clear that there is a thing called “smoke taint.”

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One vintner from Canada told me that, after a large forest fire in 2003 had blanketed his vineyards with smoke, the wines had “that taste you get when someone puts their cigarette out in your coke.” Yuck. Needless to say it was a lost vintage.

The hot spot, if you will, for research on smoke taint is the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide. Fires in 2003, 2006 and this year have provided the Institute with a wealth of information on how grapes are affected by smoke.

Basically, their research shows that grape skins, vines and leaves all absorb levels of chemical compounds called guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol that are present in smoke. Because these compounds are absorbed systemically it is not possible to simply wash them from the skins. Certain grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese appear to be highly susceptible to the taint, while – and this is good news for the Australians – Shiraz appears to be less affected.

The bad news, especially for the regions of Northern California that have basked in smoke this August, is that grapes are most likely to be affected by smoke as they get closer to harvest. The good news is that there does not appear to be any lingering effects for future vintages.

This does not mean that you should avoid wines from regions and vintages that have been affected by wildfires. Vintners in these areas know that they have reputations to protect and it would be suicide for a producer to bottle and sell smoke-tainted wine. Reputable wine marketers will, as my Canadian friend did, accept that a lower yield, or perhaps pulling a vintage, is simply the cost of doing business in the wine world.

The saying “If it’s not one thing, it’s another” was likely first uttered by winemakers who grow the grapes that become the wine in your glass.

Drink a toast to their travails and keep your butts in the car.