Many of you will no doubt remember the wildfires that ravaged wine country last summer. At the time, many grape growers were concerned about the possibility of "smoke taint" impacting fruit quality. Depending on the level of contamination, the potential for some finished wines to exhibit excessive "smoky" flavors, was said to be high, particularly for vineyards that endured many weeks of smoke filled air. This was a big problem in Australia in 2003 and led to some wines having to be poured down the drain, so to speak. The Australian Wine Research Institute conducted studies on the problem of smoke taint and published their findings in a study released in 2004. Here is the main conclusion from the report:
"The investigations, while by no means definitive in nature, indicated that exposure of grapes to bushfire smoke as early as veraison may cause levels of taint in the resulting wine which substantially reduces its commercial value. It is apparent that the taint compounds are present within the grape skin, and thus their extraction is difficult to avoid during winemaking, especially red-winemaking where extended skin contact is necessary. For white wines, winemaking treatments that minimise contact between juice and skin may be beneficial in reducing the intensity of any taint."
So really, smoke taint is nobody's friend. Because some of the fires were concentrated in the northern part of Mendocino County, there was a risk that Anderson Valley vineyards would be impacted by the billowing smoke. And indeed, after speaking with our winemaker at Crushpad there is an issue this year with fruit from both the Annahala and Hein vineyards. The good news though is that it appears to be a very minimal issue:
"A touch of smokiness in the Annahala and the Hein is fairly clean. We will watch to see how they develop over the coming months. I will be happy to get you a sample once they finish fermentations."
When we get the samples we will definitely put up a post about how the juice tastes and whether we can detect any smokiness. The good thing is that we are only using 33% new oak barrels in our wine recipes, which means our wines have relatively little oak influence to begin with. I only mention this because one method for dealing with taint is to move to a 100% neutral barrel if you don't like how the flavor is developing. This trick works because the same compound that is present in the smoke that attaches to the grapes on the vine is also the same one present in the oak barrels used to age the wine. Additionally, our extraction goals are somewhat middle of the road, which means the grape skins are not going to be in contact with the juice any longer than necessary.
So just when you thought you only had to worry about rain, drought, frost, wind, pests, and other "issues" associated with commercial winemaking, mother nature again wields her power and let's you know fire should be a real concern too!