Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Smoke Gets in Your Wine!

Or rather, smoke gets into your vine. As the saying goes: "Where there is smoke, there is fire!" California has seen many fires this summer and for vintners it has been "where there is fire there is smoke". Smoke taint in wine is not easily removed. The summer of 2003 saw major brush fires in Australia. Here in British Columbia, the Okanagan Mountain Park fire in August of 2003 saw 45,000 residents evacuated and 239 homes burned down.Tom Di Bello, a graduate of the University of California, Davis, is the winemaker at the Cedar Creek Estate winery in BC and is getting a lot of calls from vintners in California. He had to attempt to salvage some badly tainted grapes. I tasted his premium Pinot Noir from the barrel while up in the Okanagan in the spring of 2004 and let me tell you smoke taint ain't what I like in my wine. In the end this wine was used in their entry level red blend. If a wine is badly tainted it is pretty much a write off. Tom tells me that this particular batch of Pinot Noir was the worst tainted wine on record anywhere. A rather dubious and unwanted distinction. If the damage is not severe Tom recommends a method now widely used to reduce or remove smoke taint, Reverse Osmosis. Nanno filtration, micro-oxygenation and activated charcoal are other methods employed. Getting those grapes in as fast as possible if the fire happens near grape picking time is essential. Whole cluster pressing and no skin contact is what Tom suggests and forget about making a red wine. Just make a rosé.
I had the pleasure of meeting Hugh Hamilton from McLaren Vale in Australia and tasting his remarkable wines when he made a visit to Victoria this summer. Not only does Hugh have a great sense of humor (Is that an Australian trait?) but he makes outstanding wines. Talk turned to taint and I am endebted to Hugh for some very valuable info regarding smoke damage to grape crops. Australia of course not only suffered great losses in 2003 but major brush fires were a problem in 2007 as well. The McLaren region was lucky enough to escape both times.
The latest research seems to indicate that grapes do not actually absorb smoke directly, but rather the smoke compounds are absorbed by the leaves and translocated to the berries.

(pictured here is the Okanagan Mountain Park fire in 2003)
Meanwhile back to the Okanagan. The picture below shows their entrance gate and the total devastation of the St.Hubertus Estate Winery. The winery building, a residence, tasting room and the entire crop was lost. By some blessed miracle the winery's storage facility with all the previous vintage wines and their entrance gate survived. They used to produce a Bacchus wine which is no longer produced. Too bad, I really liked it. But I think Bacchus, the God of wine, smiled down on Leo and Andy, the two brothers who operate the winery. They had brand new facilities up and running in no time and their wines are better than ever.Good luck to all California wineries who will be daeling with the problem of smoke damage to their crops. It will be interesting to see how they fare.The picture at the top? Those are real grape vine leaves, but it ain't smoke and it ain't a real fire. Just me trying to be artistic for this blog entry on "Smoke Gets in Your Wine"

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