#10 Story: The Other Smoky Taste

First Published in the November 2009 Edition

By Janet Eastman

Toasted oak barrels, good. Toasted grapes, bad. Those facts worried grape growers and winemakers in September when wildfires swept through Southern Oregon’s wine regions and smoke settled for days over ripening grapes.

In cocktail conversations, speculators may think that fire would add a pleasing character to wine. But viticulture and enology experts have tested the actual results and found that smoke-tainted grapes can sometimes retain an unforgiving taste of ashtray, screeching rubber tires, disinfectant or charred meat. This is not to be confused with the classic cigar smoke or leather aromas that come from the process of aging wine in oak barrels.

Western Australia’s Department of Agriculture & Food recently issued a report after years of analyzing the effect of smoke on winegrapes and concluded: “Where significant smoke exposure occurs during sensitive periods of vine development the resultant wine is unfit for purpose.”

Fortunately, the September fires that encroached upon several vineyards, including RoxyAnn Winery in Medford and Weisinger’s of Ashland Winery, aren’t predicted to have the impact of closer, lingering fires.

“The fire here was a bit of a scare because it was driven by strong hot winds and it threatened nearby houses,” said RoxyAnn Managing Director Michael Donovan. “But the haze in the sky cleared up quickly, and it will not affect the wine.”

Greg Jones, a Southern Oregon University professor and research climatologist, spent a week in South Africa recently with Australian David Wollan, one of the world’s foremost authorities on smoke taint. Jones says the severity of smoke damage depends on the amount of smoke, how long it lingers and when it occurred during the plant’s growth cycle.

Grapevines are most susceptible to smoke compounds a week after veraison through to harvest, according to the Australian report. Research continues, but scientists have found that heavy exposure of smoke for as little as 30 minutes can change the flavor of wine.

“The fires in the Umpqua were higher up in the mountains and not near any Umpqua vineyards,” said Jones. “Most of the Rogue was under a pall of smoke from the Umpqua fires for three to four days, but it was not heavy or long enough to make a significant impact.”

Jones noted some grape growers in Northern California were hit with smoke taint issues last year when fires burned for months. “It was significant and reports have indicated that some wines had to be treated,” he said.

To minimize the smoke effect, concerned vintners have used a high-volume cold-water wash, harvested by hand, removed leaf matter in the grape load and limited the amount of contact the skins have with the juice.

But telltale signs of lingering smoke sometimes aren’t detectable until bottling. And taint-removal systems have been criticized for leaving a scar on the flavors. Researchers are also looking into the taste changes in wines after protective chemicals have been applied to grapevines before a fire.

In the past, when less was known about smoke taint, winemakers had to just make the best of it with a bottle-it-and-be-proud attitude.

In 2002, the Biscuit Fire blazed nearly 500,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest. Inventive staff members at Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley boldly called attention to their smoky Cabernet Sauvignon grapes by bottling a wine they named Biscuit Fire Reserve. The label had red flames in the background. It’s now a collector’s item, once fetching $700 a bottle.

Some of the proceeds from that year were given to firefighters, a tradition that Troon continues. Owner Chris Martin, who purchased the winery in 2003 largely based on the wines that were in the barrel at that time—the smoke-affected 2002s—believes the vintage was spectacular because “a constant layer of smoke and haze in August and September [of 2002] gave a complete and even ripening to the clusters.”

Medford-based EdenVale Winery’s 2002 Pinot Noir, in which tasters today say they can detect the scent of smoke, won the bronze medal in the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

There’s also an aroma of smoke in Weisinger’s 2002 Rogue Valley Merlot.

“Wine is a natural product, and we inherit whatever nature sends us,” commented Weisinger’s Manager Robert Trottmann. “When there’s a smoke flavor to wine, is that a flaw?"

Janet Eastman is an Ashland-based journalist who covers Southern Oregon wine for and other media.

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