A Hazy Harvest?

Rogue Valley growers Cal Schmidt, Lee Mankin and Joe Ginet hope for the best despite smoke lingering over Southern Oregon vineyards such as Mankin’s Carpenter Hill Vineyard in Medford. Photo by Janet Eastman.

By Janet Eastman

Open a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rogue Valley’s 2009 vintage. Does it taste like black currant, spice and tobacco? If so, those flavors came from the grapes and toasted oak barrels, not from the smoke that hung in the air for a week before harvest.

Wine and smoke, you see, have a complex relationship. Sooty air can change wine, but it takes time. As of Aug. 11, weeks after lightning started five major wildfires in southwestern Oregon, the region’s grapes haven’t been kissed deeply with smoky lips — yet.

There have been short-term impacts. In vineyards from Ashland to the Applegate, unpredictable conditions are forcing weddings, concerts and fundraisers to move indoors. 

Vineyard crews are suffering burning eyes and that sluggish feeling from exposure to smoke. In early August, vineyard manager Chris Hubert of OVS Results Partners sent workers home under a pall of smoke. They are now back, tucking in grapevines but safely wearing respirators.

As for longer impact, winemakers and grapegrowers are searching the gray air for good news. If the smoke scatters soon, it might have helped enhance the flavor of the winegrapes. If the fires worsen, no one wants to predict the outcome.

“We would be happy to see the smoke go away, but I think it will have a positive effect on the grapes unless there is persistent smoke and more fires,” says Don Moore of South Stage Cellars, whose family owns 300 acres of grapevines from Talent to Jacksonville.

Until the fires began, grapes had been ripening two weeks earlier than recent years.

“Reducing the sun right now will keep the sugar levels low and add unique characteristics and thorough ripening to the flavor,” says Moore.

Jean-Michel Jussiaume, longtime winemaker at Del Rio Vineyards in Gold Hill, says Oregon wineries will have to deal with some telltale signs of smoke, due to the duration, timing and size of the fires. But, he adds, no one will know the complete story until harvest and a few years after the wine has developed.

“As I approach each harvest, I will be patient and make the best of what nature has to offer,” he says.

As viticulture experts calmly wait out the persistent haze, they are explaining how there are two types of references to smoke when it comes to a glass of wine. The classic cigar smoke or leather aromas arise from the process of aging wine in oak barrels. Smoke-tainted grapes, which the Rogue Valley has never experienced, can retain unforgiving odors of ashtray, screeching rubber tires, disinfectant or charred meat.

“Southern Oregon has had fires and smoke events before with little to no smoke issues in wines,” says Greg Jones, a Southern Oregon University professor and research climatologist who has spent time with the world’s foremost authorities studying smoke’s effect on wine.

“There is no reason to think that this year is any different,” he says.

Wildfires swept through Southern Oregon in September 2009, and smoke settled for about a week over ripening grapes. But it wasn’t heavy, and it didn’t stay long enough to make a significant impact.

In 2002, the Biscuit Fire consumed nearly 500,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest, leaving a lingering mark on the landscape. Winemakers hoped the constant layer of smoke and haze in August and September would allow for even ripening to the clusters. 

Vintner Donna Devine pressed smoke-affected Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown at Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley and hoped for the best. Troon’s current winemaker, Herb Quady, then cellared the wine, and when it was ready to be released, the winery decided to celebrate its blazing history by naming it Biscuit Fire Reserve.

The label had red flames in the background. It’s now a collector’s item, once commanding $700 a bottle. Some of the proceeds from that year were donated to firefighters, a tradition that Troon continues. 

Wine appreciator Kim Hosford of Talent says that the Troon Biscuit Fire Cab was one of the most memorable wines she has tasted.

“It was the summer of 2006 and I went winetasting with a group,” says Hosford. “The Troon staff told us about this wine, and when we tasted it, it had a distinctly smoky flavor but not overwhelming. The smoke added another layer of complexity. We bought a few bottles and drank them.”

Grapegrower Don Moore remembers selling out of South Stage Cellars’ 2002 Syrah by winemaker Linda Donovan because of the lightly smoked taste.

Timing and talent, experts agree, are paramount.

Grapevines are most susceptible to smoke compounds from veraison through harvest, according to Del Rio’s winemaker Jussiaume. Veraison, which is occurring now, is when the grapes start to soften and change color. 

Fire particles are absorbed by the plant and accumulate onto the grape skin but not the pulp. If necessary, smoke damage can be reduced or avoided altogether by limiting the juice’s contact with the skins.

But, says Jussiaume, red grape skins deliver color and tasty tannin, and some of the molecules responsible for the smoke taint are identical to ones in oaked wine and found naturally in some grape varieties.

“The difference is their concentration,” he says. “That is why the influence of smoke, in the best case, can also participate in adding to a wine’s complexity.”

Winemaker Quady is also taking a wait-and-see approach.

“While it’s certain that the smoke will have some effect on the character of the vintage, the type and magnitude of the effect remain to be seen,” he says. “Conditions have definitely gotten better, so it may become a non-issue or a slight character of the vintage unless conditions get worse.” 

Story reprinted with permission from Mail Tribune.

Editor’s Note: As of Aug. 21 (date of press), the Big Windy fire complex northwest of Grants Pass added 3,200 acres in the past 24 hours, now charring nearly 23,000 acres. The blaze is actively burning, threatening various structures and cultural and recreational resources. The fire is 20 percent contained. The Douglas complex north of Glendale, covering nearly 49,000 acres, was 79 percent contained.

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